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What Will the Autonomous Ship of the Future Look Like?

Smithsonian Magazine

Sure as the self-driving car, robot ships are coming. Fleets of small wind-powered drones are circling the ocean, recording climate and current data. A Norwegian company plans to introduce autonomous ferries in 2018. And Rolls Royce and other shipbuilding companies are designing concepts and writing white papers that envision the future of autonomous ships.

The potential for these boats is high, and the potential uses varied. What will they look like? How different will they really be?

The answer is, it depends. Ships are already making use of navigation assistance, and will begin to be retrofit for more robotic control, similar to how carmakers have started with lane assist and automatic parking features. But when shipbuilders begin to build vessels specifically for autonomous use, a host of new features will become available or necessary, and others will vanish.

“We are not constrained by the same limitations that a manned vessel has,” says Oskar Levander, vice president of innovation at Rolls Royce Marine. “What you end up with is a very lean and efficient machine.”

Two remote-controlled ships from Rolls Royce pass in the water. (Rolls Royce)

This is not an either/or situation. Aspects of three primary opportunities will get mixed and matched: autonomous control, or self driving; remote operation, similar to piloting a drone; and reduction or elimination of crews, which can even board or depart from the vessel.

One way that might look, says Levander, is a sort of hybrid. A ship on the open sea, traveling primarily straight ahead with little in its way, will be controlled by an onboard computer, with the occasional oversight of a land-based operator who may manage hundreds of different ships at once. As it comes to port, or enters a congested area, several things could happen. The remote operator could take full control, or a crew could boat out and board.

There are a number of obvious advantages to going crewless. Designs will eliminate the quarters, mess, stairs, doors, and just about everything else people use. One upshot of this is loads of extra space, available for more cargo. Another is a more streamlined exterior. It even enables the weight to balance out nicely. Traditional ships have a lot of weight in the stern, thanks to the bridge. The lighter center is buoyant, bending upward and requiring heavy ballast, often in the form of water, that is hauled around for no other purpose than to keep the ship level. Take away the superstructure, redistribute the weight, and it will reduce the ballast needed.

“It’s really only when you go fully unmanned that you can reduce all the systems,” says Levander. “When we add this all together, the reduced electrical consumption when we take out systems, the lower weight of the vessel, the lower wind resistance, we talk about a 10 to 15 percent fuel savings, for a typical cargo vessel.”

Elimination of HVAC, food and water, and other life-sustaining systems is another advantage, reducing cost of the ship while increasing space.

Much like self-driving cars, there isn’t a ready regulatory landscape. The Fraunhofer Center for Marine Logistics and Services is one entity exploring both the technological and legal aspects. In both ships and cars, it’s understood that the automation could provide great increases in safety—most maritime accidents are caused by operator error or fatigue, and a Fraunhofer-led report on Maritime Unmanned Navigation through Intelligence and Networks (MUNIN) expects autonomy to deliver a tenfold decrease in risk of foundering and collision. But regulatory bodies will require proof, with the added confusion wrought by shipping’s international nature.

The companies working on autonomous vessels are already discussing potential regulations, as well as the safety features that will be required, both internally and externally.

“Law governing unmanned vehicles in land, air and sea is still an evolving factor. It’s somewhat of a gray area as the various legislatures start their processes of legislation, and I guess sea is lagging behind,” says Richard Jenkins, founder and CEO of Saildrone, which sends a fleet of small autonomous water-borne vehicles around the world. Though large in reach—Saildrone has logged more than 70,000 miles so far—the company is starting small in terms of the vehicles. Jenkins likens these 23-foot boats to mobile buoys, which follow predetermined routes with the help of iridium satellites. The on-board computer transmits 2,000 parameters in real-time via those satellites, from various sensors including measurements like temperature and humidity, as well as the physical state of the vehicle including central processing unit [CPU] and battery status, and even navigational factors such as wind speed and angle.

That’s not all that different from what larger ships are doing. Where there once was a bridge, smaller towers with sensor banks mounted on them will acquire and relay information about the ships surroundings. Radar is the classic example, but LIDAR is already being incorporated. Where radar just provides dots on a screen, LIDAR can express surroundings in 3D. Infrared cameras, normal cameras and close-proximity radar will also be incorporated, and rather than sending each representation back to base, the computer will combine them into one rendering of the ship’s environment.

MUNIN's vision for autonomous ships (MUNIN)

“To feed all these more advanced algorithms, and more advanced systems, you would need better data resolution,” says Wilko Bruhn, a research associate at Fraunhofer who worked on MUNIN. “Whereas you may only had one radar before, maybe you might have two, and of course, you will have more high-technology radars on the ship. It’s still the same sensor, it’s a radar, it works by the same general approach, but it will be much more high quality.”

Eliminating crew confers many advantages, but also necessitates some additional features in addition to the expanded sensors. Primarily, with no one around to fix anything, shipbuilders will have to construct for reliability and redundancy of systems, and operators will have to focus on predictive maintenance—even with small drones on board, most repairs will be impossible.

Instead of having one engine driving one propeller, ships will have two, or even four. According to Levander, diesel fuel will give way to liquefied natural gas. In fact, it already is—liquefied natural gas uses a simpler system, where pressure from the tank drives the gas through a series of valves to the engine, with no pumps or fuel injectors needed. Or, compartmentalized (and redundant) diesel engines will power batteries, which will run electric motors. Rolls Royce developed one design where the diesel generators are housed in shipping containers on the deck, so they’re easily removable for repairs or replacements.

MUNIN imagines a shore control center. (MUNIN)

“When you don’t have people on board you can really start addressing fire security in different ways. You can say, do I need oxygen in the engine room, or can I suppress that and make it very hard for something to go wrong?” says Levander.

A lot of this will be experimented with on short trips and smaller vessels first, where regulations are administered by a single government. Next, we’ll see bigger ships making long trips with dry cargo, which is the least destructive in case of incident.

“Do we have the technology that we would need for such a ship? Can we build it?”  Bruhn says the MUNIN report was supposed to assess. “The technology has already been much more advanced than we expected … we are already closer to this autonomous ship than we thought at the beginning.”

What in the World (Or Off of It) Is a Yardang?

Smithsonian Magazine

A yardang sounds like a nautical term: “Swab down the yardang, matey, or you’ll walk the plank!” And, from certain angles, yardangs do look like boats. But they have nothing to do with the sea—they are massive geologic formations, on Earth and on Mars, that are formed by the steady erosion of rock by the wind.

From the HiRISE science team, which took the picture above: 

Yardangs are streamlined hills that are carved by wind erosion from bedrock. The rock must be sufficiently erodible for wind to either deflate (pick up) poorly-consolidated pieces or scrape the surface by blowing sand. HiRISE resolution allows us to view yardangs and the component layers more closely, and to get a better understanding of the material.

“Yardang” is a word of Turkish origin, meaning “steep bank.“ When viewed from above, yardangs can look like the hull of a boat.

Resembling a boat? Yarrr…

Other experiments, including the Mars Express spacecraft, have documented the appearance of yardangs on the martian surface. The picture below shows yardangs near the base of the Martian volcano, Olympus Mons. 

(original image)

Yardangs can also show up much closer to home. Here on Earth, some of the most spectacular yardangs are in the Gobi desert, where seasonal dust storms have carved beautiful linear yardangs into the landscape.

(original image)

H/T to Corey Powell who tweeted about Yardangs earlier this week. 

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.

What's Up, Doc? Check Out the Work of Famed Animator Chuck Jones

Smithsonian Magazine

You may not recognize his face, but you'd certainly recognize the face of his creations—Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, the Roadrunner, all born from the mind of Chuck Jones, the animator, cartoonist and director of animated films.

Jones' timeless characters are center stage in "What's Up, Doc? The Animation of Chuck Jones," a new traveling exhibition created through a first-time collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES), The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity, and the Museum of the Moving Image. The exhibition opened at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City on July 19, and will run for six months before moving to its next location, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and Technology. All told, the exhibit will travel to 13 different locations before concluding its run in 2019.

In 2010, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences featured an exhibit, curated by Ellen Harrington, of 125 of Chuck Jones' original works of art that spanned his entire career. After seeing the show, the Smithsonian's Deborah Macanic teamed up with Harrington, as well as members of the Chuck Jones Center for Creativity and the Museum of the Moving Image, to bring an in-depth look at Jones' prolific career to life. "His base was in drawing and paintings, and that comes through very clearly in the way he directed animated films," says Macanic, noting that the exhibit took care to look at Jones' career from all angles: as an animated director, as an artist and as a writer. "All of that comes together to support the career of Chuck Jones in a way that I don’t think I’ve seen done before," she adds.

Chuck Jones was born in Spokane, Washington, in 1912. Building upon a childhood love of art, Jones graduated from Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles and immediately went to work in Hollywood's studios, logging experience at two before becoming the youngest director at Warner Brothers Studios in 1939, where he remained until 1962, when the animation department was shut down. It was there that some of his most iconic characters—Bugs Bunny to Wile E. Coyote—were developed.

"It’s hard to imagine an America without Bugs Bunny," says Barbara Miller, one of the co-curators for the exhibition from the Museum of the Moving Image. "It’s not just a character in a cartoon, it’s a character that’s out there in the American imagination."

But Jones was more than an animator: he drew his characters in a way that gave them movement and life. "Chuck always said you should be able to turn the sound off of a cartoon and have a sense of what was going on," Miller says, noting that for Jones, any animated character would have to be able to perform in the same way as a live actor—using the same richness of movement or twinkle in the eye. It was more than Jones' pen that brought these characters to life in such a timeless way—his skills as an animation director were crucial to his work's lasting appeal. "I think it’s really important that we explain what an animation director does and doesn’t do," says Miller of the exhibit. "They don’t sit down and do all the drawings, they orchestrate a team of talented people to do this amazing work."

"People might come expecting to see the cartoons and have a fun time sharing the memories of the cartoons, but I think one of the things the exhibition does really well is help people understand how much specific decision making goes into making those seven-minute cartoons," Harrington adds. The exhibition, in addition to Jones' drawings, showcases the nuts-and-bolts of the animation process, from pencil tests (early versions of animated scenes) to character model sheets (drawings used to depict the movements and appearance of characters). "People can really learn how a script is broken down and how the timing is organized," Harrington says. Jones' famous comedic timing, for instance, was broken down to a frame-by-frame level; he knew the exact number of frames between when Wile E. Coyote fell and when he hit the ground to get a laugh. "It was literally a one frame difference," Harrington explains.

Even in today's world, where box office hits sport booming CGI and 3-D versions, Jones' comedic timing and attention to detail live on. The exhibit features a series of recorded interviews with John Lasseter, chief creative officer at Pixar and the imagination behind animated classics like Toy Story—in his interviews, Lasseter underscores what a profound influence Jones had on the media world. "It was very important for us, in creating this show, to address the subject of Chuck Jones’ legacy," Miller says. "People aren’t creating cartoons, mostly, using pencils anymore, but what was made very clear is that his influence is still very much being felt."

"What’s Up, Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones" will be on display at the Museum of the Moving Image, in New York City, through January, 2015, before moving on to 13 other cities across America, including Seattle and Fort Worth.

What’s the Flattest-Looking State in the U.S.?

Smithsonian Magazine

Compared to the mountainous stretches along the east and west coasts, the midwest U.S. is sometimes mocked as a empty expanse, a land of fields and farms that is, literally, "flatter than a pancake."

But, it all depends on how you look at this question. A pancake, for instance, is not actually that flat—it's an expanse of crevisses and mountainous air bubbles. And while some states are flatter than others—not every state has Alaska's Mount McKinley at 20,237 feet above sea level or California's Death Valley basin 282 feet below—whether or not they're perceived that way is another question altogether. Existence, and our perception of it, are not always the same thing.

In a new report, geographers Jerome Dobson and Joshua Campbell ranked the contiguous U.S. states by perceived roundness. An objective measure of flatness is easy enough to gather with satellite-borne altimeters. But they wanted to know not which state is the flattest, but which one seems the flattest. They used a computer analysis to calculate how a 6-foot-tall person who could see just over 3 miles would see the world, using this analysis to dub the view either “flat” or “not flat.”

Based on personal experience with Great Plains landscapes, the authors determined that an angle of 0.32° was the appropriate cut-point for the classification. In practical terms, the visual effect is equivalent to observing a stand of trees 15 m. tall at 2,655 m. distance, or a 30m tree or hill at 5,310 m.

A long gentle slope, even if it amounts to a great change in elevation, still looks pretty flat from the ground.

For an observer standing in one spot, they calculated how the terrain would look in 16 different directions. Taken together, the view from that vantage could run from “not flat” through to “flat,” “flatter,” and “flattest.”

According to the analysis, and agreeing with reality, Florida is both the flattest and flattest-looking state. Next up are Illinois, North Dakota, Louisiana, Minnesota, Delaware, Kansas and Texas. The least-flat-seeming states: West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky.

But why then, the researchers ask, is the Midwest, particularly Kansas, joked about as being so flat?

Clearly, popular notions do not match the measured flatness of U. S. states. Florida is a fascinating case because its land is so demonstrably flat, and yet so few people think of it as such. This, in turn, begs the question, “What drives human perceptions of flatness?” Do Florida’s dense forests mask its flatness? Does standing water influence human perception of flatness?

The researchers aren't sure, but even so, what's at stake other than flapjack-flatness bragging rights? “[A]side from state pride,” the researchers write, “stereotypes have consequences. Business, academic, and other recruiting, for instance, are hampered by negative attitudes about the perceived flatness of “fly-over country” held by even the most qualified candidates.”

Florida has enough stereotype problems, though. Maybe we could let them have this one.

When Edgar Allan Poe Needed to Get Away, He Went to the Bronx

Smithsonian Magazine

Once upon a morning dreary, I left Brooklyn with eyes bleary, Wearily I took the subway to a poet's old forgotten home.

In 1844, Edgar Allan Poe and his young wife Virginia moved to New York City. It was Poe’s second time living in the city and just one of many homes for the peripatetic author. Unfortunately, after two years and several Manhattan addresses, Virginia fell ill with tuberculosis. With the hope that country air might improve her condition, or at least make her final days more peaceful, Poe moved the family out to a small, shingled cottage in the picturesque woods and green pastures of Fordham Village - better known today as the Bronx.

The six-room cottage was built in 1812 as worker’s housing for farm hands. Poe rented it from landowner John Valentine for $100 per year - no small sum for the constantly struggling writer who sold The Raven, his most famous work, for a flat fee of $8. During his time at the cottage, Poe cared for his ailing wife, who died three years after they moved in, and wrote some of his most celebrated poems, including the darkly romantic "Annabel Lee".

(original image)

After Poe’s death in 1849, the cottage changed hands a few times and gradually fell in disrepair as the pastoral countryside became more and more urban. The area's upper class residents came to see it as an eyesore and an obstruction to progress, and by the 1890s Poe's house seemed destined for demolition. The growing controversy surrounding the cottage’s future was well-reported by The New York Times, which published a passionate article arguing in favor of preservation:

"The home of an author or a poet, whose memory has been marked for the honors that posterity alone confers, becomes a magnet for men and women the world over....The personal facts, the actual environment, the things he has touched and that have touched him are part of the great poet's wonder-work and to distort them or to neglect them is to destroy them entirely."

Eventually preservation prevailed, and a plan was enacted to build a park nearby and relocate the house just a block from its original site. Though the park was built, its centerpiece wasn't moved due to differences between dueling groups of preservationists and the prevarications of the building's new owner. In 1913, an agreement was reached and the house was relocated to its current site in what is now Poe Park.

(original image)

Of course, the natural setting is long gone. Instead of apple orchards, the cottage is now surrounded on all sides by wide, multi-lane streets and tall apartment buildings like a rural oasis in the middle of a concrete ocean. It is the only surviving residential from old Fordham and a testament to preservation - not only of Poe’s history, but of New York’s history. Sometimes, for a few brief seconds when car horns quiet and traffic stops and the wind carries the sound of the bells bells bells bells of nearby Fordham University Church, you can imagine this place as it was during Poe’s life, a quiet respite from the city.

(original image)

The cottage (as seen in the top image) is operated as a historic house museum by the Bronx County Historical Society. It is part of the Historic House Trust of New York City and listed on the the National Register of Historic Places.  It underwent a stunning restoration in 2011, and was joined by a new visitor center that, while not used as such, is a beautiful complement to the cottage and architectural homage to the writer. Designed by Toshiko More Architect, the soaring new building’s black slate shingles and butterfly roof clearly seems to have been inspired by the Poe's avian harbinger of doom.

(original image)

The interior is surprisingly spacious (at least by the standards of a writer living in contemporary New York) and furnished with period-accurate antiques that fit the description of the home given by visitors, as well as three appropriately Gothic items that actually belonged to Poe during his residency: the “rope bed” that Virginia died in, a rocking chair and a cracked mirror.

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This modest building also served as the inspiration for the final Poe story published during the author’s life, “Landor’s Cottage,” which appeared in the June 9, 1849, issue of Flag of Our Union, four months before his death. A far cry from the tales of woe and horror Poe is widely known for, the story of “Landor’s Cottage” is quite simple: a man hiking through the bucolic setting of rural New York comes across a small house and marvels at its picturesque perfection, finding that it “struck me with the keenest sense of combined novelty and propriety — in a word, of poetry”.  What follows is the narrator's depiction of the cottage. Warning: in the following excerpt, there’s no secret rooms, no woe-begotten protagonists or menacing visions.

Just pure, straightforward, even banal description:

The main building was about twenty-four feet long and sixteen broad- certainly not more. Its total height, from the ground to the apex of the roof, could not have exceeded eighteen feet. To the west end of this structure was attached one about a third smaller in all its proportions:-the line of its front standing back about two yards from that of the larger house, and the line of its roof, of course, being considerably depressed below that of the roof adjoining. At right angles to these buildings, and from the rear of the main one-not exactly in the middle-extended a third compartment, very small- being, in general, one-third less than the western wing. The roofs of the two larger were very steep-sweeping down from the ridge-beam with a long concave curve, and extending at least four feet beyond the walls in front, so as to form the roofs of two piazzas. These latter roofs, of course, needed no support; but as they had the air of needing it, slight and perfectly plain pillars were inserted at the corners alone. The roof of the northern wing was merely an extension of a portion of the main roof. Between the chief building and western wing arose a very tall and rather slender square chimney of hard Dutch bricks, alternately black and red:-a slight cornice of projecting bricks at the top. Over the gables the roofs also projected very much:-in the main building about four feet to the east and two to the west. The principal door was not exactly in the main division, being a little to the east-while the two windows were to the west. These latter did not extend to the floor, but were much longer and narrower than usual-they had single shutters like doors- the panes were of lozenge form, but quite large. The door itself had its upper half of glass, also in lozenge panes-a movable shutter secured it at night. The door to the west wing was in its gable, and quite simple-a single window looked out to the south. There was no external door to the north wing, and it also had only one window to the east.

The blank wall of the eastern gable was relieved by stairs (with a balustrade) running diagonally across it-the ascent being from the south. Under cover of the widely projecting eave these steps gave access to a door leading to the garret, or rather loft-for it was lighted only by a single window to the north, and seemed to have been intended as a store-room....

The pillars of the piazza were enwreathed in jasmine and sweet honeysuckle; while from the angle formed by the main structure and its west wing, in front, sprang a grape-vine of unexampled luxuriance. Scorning all restraint, it had clambered first to the lower roof-then to the higher; and along the ridge of this latter it continued to writhe on, throwing out tendrils to the right and left, until at length it fairly attained the east gable, and fell trailing over the stairs.

The whole house, with its wings, was constructed of the old-fashioned Dutch shingles-broad, and with unrounded corners. It is a peculiarity of this material to give houses built of it the appearance of being wider at bottom than at top-after the manner of Egyptian architecture; and in the present instance, this exceedingly picturesque effect was aided by numerous pots of gorgeous flowers that almost encompassed the base of the buildings.

Despite the Eden-like setting, it seems clear that Landor’s cottage is an idealized vision of Poe’s own Fordham residence. Beyond the formal resemblance, the interior layout of Landor’s cottage, described briefly by the narrator, is very similar to Poe’s cottage, with a kitchen, main room and bedroom on the first floor. It is also decorated in a manner keeping with the author’s own tastes, on which he elaborates in another lesser-known work, “The Philosophy of Furniture” (which I hope to elaborate on in a future post). Poe ends his architectural fiction by noting that another article may elaborate on the events that transpired at Landor’s cottage. Had he not died, perhaps we might have discovered more about the kind but enigmatic residence and his picturesque cottage.

When Real Estate Plotters Planned Out Denver

Smithsonian Magazine

This map of Denver in 1879 was made by H.L. Thayer, a man who was not in the business of selling maps, but instead in the business of selling land – his maps would be used for speculators or bankers. Like the Chicago map, Thayer’s Denver map was printed on light, thin paper, making it perfect to be toted in the pockets of real estate buyers and sellers. Like the Chicago map, Rumsey explains that Thayer’s map of Denver shows a town in full-blown expansion. Denver was founded in 1858 during the Pike’s Peak gold rush; the city was only 21 years old when this map was drawn. The additions highlighted on the map – Stiles Addition, Schiners Addition, and the others – were all expanding neighborhoods named for the men who developed them.

“What is really fun to see, particularly on the old map, using the spyglass, is the river,” Rumsey explains. “You can see how it’s really been channeled.” Indeed, dragging the spyglass over the Platte River, one can see how a once divergent river was channeled into a straight and narrow path by developers hoping to expand buildable land.

Rumsey also points out the contrasting grid system of the city, explaining how the downtown area was built on a 45-degree angled grid, while the outlaying residential areas were built in a north-south grid, known as a township and range grid. “My guess is that these township and range grids probably came later to Denver,” Rumsey explains, noting how the angled downtown area was the first settled part of the city. “These grids are still there today,” Rumsey adds. “These decisions, made by individuals, become part of the fabric of the city.”

When the British Wanted to Camouflage Their Warships, They Made Them Dazzle

Smithsonian Magazine

In late October 1917, King George V spent an afternoon inspecting a new division of Britain’s merchant naval service, the intriguingly named “Dazzle Section”.

The visit came during one of the worst periods in war that had already battered British sea power. German U-boat technology was a devastating success; fully one-fifth of Britain’s merchant ships, ferrying supplies to the British Isles, had been sunk by the end of 1916. The next year brought fresh horror: Desperate to grind down the Allies and bring an end to this costly war, the Kaiser declared unrestricted submarine warfare on January 31, 1917, promising to torpedo any ship that came within the warzone. Imperial U-boats made good on that promise – on April 17, 1917 a U-boat torpedoed a hospital ship, the HMHS Lanfranc, in the English Channel, killing 40 people, including 18 wounded German soldiers. “Hun Savagery” read the headlines. The Lanfranc’s sinking was outrageous, but it was by no means the only one – between March and December 1917, British ships of all kinds were blown out of the water at a rate of 23 a week, 925 ships by the end of that period.

So it was imperative that what George V was about to see worked.

The King was shown a tiny model ship, painted not standard battleship gray, but in an explosion of dissonant stripes and swoops of contrasting colors. The model was mounted on a turntable set against a seascape backdrop. George was then asked to estimate the ship’s course, based on his observations from a periscope fixed about 10 feet away. The King had served in the Royal Navy before the death of his older brother put him first in line for the throne, and he knew what he was doing. “South by west,” was his answer.

“East-southeast” came the answer from Norman Wilkinson, head of the new department. George V was astounded, dazzled even. “I have been a professional sailor for many years,” the confounded King reportedly said, “and I would not have believed I could have been so deceived in my estimate.”

Dazzle, it seems, was a success.

How to camouflage ships at sea was one of the big questions of World War I. From the early stages of the war, artists, naturalists and inventors showered the offices of the United States Navy and the British Royal Navy with largely impractical suggestions on making ships invisible: Cover them in mirrors, disguise them as giant whales, drape them in canvas to make them look like clouds. Eminent inventor Thomas Edison’s scheme of making a ship appear like an island – with trees, even – was actually put into practice. The S.S. Ockenfels, however, only made it as far as New York Harbor before everyone realized what a bad and impractical idea it was when part of the disguise, a canvas covering, blew away. Though protective coloring and covers worked on land, the sea was a vastly different environment. Ships moved through changing light and visibility, they were subject to extreme weather, they belched black smoke and bled rust. Any sort of camouflage would have to work in variable and challenging conditions.

Wilkinson’s innovation, what would be called “dazzle,” was that rather than using camouflage to hide the vessel, he used it to hide the vessel’s intention. Later he’d say that he’d realized that, “Since it was impossible to paint a ship so that she could not be seen by a submarine, the extreme opposite was the answer – in other words, to paint her, not for low visibility, but in such a way as to break up her form and thus confuse a submarine officer as the course on which she was heading.”

Image by The Collection Database of the Australian War Memorial via WIkicommons. Photograph of the Australian Bathurst class minesweeping corvette HMAS Wollongong (J172) (original image)

Image by The collections of the Imperial War Museums via Wikicommons. HMS Fencer at anchor (original image)

Image by via Wikicommons. Submarine commander's periscope view of a merchant ship in dazzle camouflage (left) and the same ship uncamouflaged (right). (original image)

Image by The Canadian Copyright Collection held by the British Library via Wikicommons. Dazzle camouflage (original image)

Image by The collections of the Imperial War Museums via Wikicommons. British destroyer HMS Badsworth under tow on the Mersey. She served as HNoMS Arendal with the Royal Norwegian Navy from 1944 to 1961. (original image)

Image by via Wikicommons. The HMS Argus (I49) in harbour in 1918, painted in dazzle camouflage, with a Renown class battlecruiser in the distance (original image)

Image by U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph via Wikicommons. HMS Furious (British Aircraft Carrier, 1917-1948) In a British port in 1918, after she had been fitted with a landing-on deck aft. Note the large crash barrier rigged behind her funnel, her "dazzle" camouflage, and the steam launch passing by in the foreground. (original image)

Image by The collections of the Imperial War Museums via Wikicommons. HMS Haydon Underway (original image)

In order for a U-boat gunner to fire and hit his target from as far as 1,900 meters away (and not closer than 300 meters, as torpedoes required at least that much running distance to arm), he had to accurately predict where the target would be based on informed guesses. Compounding the difficulty was the fact that he had typically less than 30 seconds to sight the target ship through the periscope, or risk the periscope’s wake being seen and giving away the submarine’s location. Typical U-boats could only carry 12 very expensive and very slow torpedoes at a time, so the gunner had to get it right the first time.

“If you’re hunting for ducks, right, all you have to do is lead the target and it’s a simple process. But if you’re a submarine aiming at a ship, you have to calculate how fast a ship is going, where is it going, and aim the torpedo so that they both get to the same spot at the same time,” says Roy Behrens, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa, author of several books on Dazzle camouflage and the writer behind the camouflage resource blog Camoupedia. Wilkinson’s idea was to “dazzle” the gunner so that he would either be unable to take the shot with any confidence or spoil it if he did. “Wilkinson said you had to only be 8 to 10 degrees off for the torpedo to miss. And even if it were hit, if [the torpedo] didn’t hit the most vital part, that would be better than being hit directly.”

Wilkinson used broad swathes of contrasting colors—black and white, green and mauve, orange and blue—in geometric shapes and curves to make it difficult to determine the ship’s actual shape, size and direction. Curves painted across the side of the ship could create a false bow wave, for example, making the ship seem smaller or imply that it was heading in a different direction: Patterns disrupting the line of the bow or stern made it hard to tell which was the front or back, where the ship actually ended, or even whether it was one vessel or two; and angled stripes on the smokestacks could make the ship seem as if it was facing in the opposite direction. One American dazzle camoufleur (the actual term for a camouflage artist) referred to the optical distortion concept undergirding Dazzle as “reverse perspective”, also known as forced perspective and accelerated perspective, optical illusions that create a disconnect between what the viewer perceives and what is really happening (think of all those photos of tourists holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa). In practice, that meant that the system did have its limitations – it could only be applied to ships that would be targeted by periscopes, because it worked best when seen from the low-down viewpoint of a U-boat gunner.

“It’s counterintuitive. People can’t really believe that you could interfere with the visibility of something by making it more highly visible, but they don’t understand how the human eye works, that something needs to stand out from the background and hold together as an integral figure,” says Behrens.

Wilkinson was, in some ways, an unlikely innovator. At 38, he was known as talented painter of landscapes and maritime scenes – his painting of Portsmouth Harbour went down in the smoking rooms of the Titanic. Nothing in his work augers the kind of modern, avant garde aesthetic that Dazzle possessed. But crucially, Wilkinson had both an understanding of perspective and a relationship with the Admiralty and merchant shipping authorities. An enthusiastic yacht racer, he’d joined the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserves at the outbreak of war. In 1917, he was a lieutenant in command of an 83-foot patrol launch that swept the central English Channel for mines, according to Nicholas Rankin in his book, A Genius For Deception: How Cunning Helped the British Win Two World Wars. And where other innovators, including John Graham Kerr, a Scottish naturalist whose similar camouflage ideas were used briefly and discarded by the Royal Navy, failed, Wilkinson’s straightforward charisma helped his rather outré idea be taken seriously by important people, wrote Peter Forbes in Dazzled and Deceived: Mimicry and Camouflage.

After earning support for the idea, Wilkinson was given the chance to test his theory in the water. The first ship to be dazzled was a small store ship called the HMS Industry; when it was launched in May 1917, coastguards and other ships sailing the British coast were asked to report their observations of the vessel when they encountered it. Enough observers were sufficiently confused that by the beginning of October 1917, the Admiralty asked Wilkinson to dazzle 50 troopships.

Though the new initiative had backing from both the Merchant Navy and the Royal Navy, it was still operating on a wartime budget. The Royal Academy of Arts offered up four unused studios for headquarters and Wilkinson went to work with a team of 19– five artists, three model makers, and 11 female art students who hand-colored the technical plans for the final designs (one later became Wilkinson’s wife). Each design not only had to be unique to prevent U-boat crews from getting used to them, but they also had to be tailored to individual ships. Wilkinson and his artists designed schemes first on paper, and then painted them on tiny, rough-hewn wooden models, which they’d place in the mock seascape George V saw. The models were examined through periscopes in various lighting. Designs were chosen for “maximum distortion”, Wilkinson later wrote, and handed off to the art students to map out on technical drafts, to be then executed by ship painters on ships in dry dock. By June 1918, less than a year after the division was created, some 2,300 British ships were dazzled, a number that would swell to more than 4,000 by the end of the war. 

The United States, which joined the war on April 6, 1917, was then grappling with as many as six systems of camouflage, most of which peddled low visibility or invisibility to private ship owners. The Navy, however, had little confidence in the claims of diminished visibility and moreover, was also dealing with the fact that many of its ships had been German ships – meaning that the enemy knew their speed and vulnerabilities. When news of the dazzle system and its ability to mask the speed and kind of ships reached Britain’s new ally,  a young Franklin Roosevelt, then assistant to the secretary of the navy, agreed to meet with Wilkinson to discuss it. After another successful demonstration of dazzle, in which a confused U.S. admiral reportedly exploded, “How the hell do you expect me to estimate the course of a God-damn thing all painted up like that?”, Wilkinson was asked to help set up an American dazzle department under the Navy’s Bureau of Construction and Repair. Wilkinson spent five weeks in the U.S., with Everett Warner, an artist and Naval Reserve officer who would head up the Washington, D.C. dazzle subsection, as his host. Chummy as that sounds, it wasn’t.

“There was a lot of fighting or jealousy or whatever between the U.K. and the U.S.,” says Behrens with a chuckle. “If you go to the correspondence, you find that the American artists are making fun of [Wilkinson] and all sort of that thing. Warner arrived at the idea that Wilkinson didn’t know what he was doing and that what he was doing was quite haphazard.”

However the British and American departments felt about each other, they were still creating visually disruptive designs that on the face of it, were very much alike: Broad stripes and curves of white, black, green, blue, spiky and jagged and very Modern art. This was not lost on contemporary journalists, who branded the dazzled ships a “futurist’s bad dream” and “floating Cubist paintings”, as well as “an intoxicated snake”, “a Russian toyshop gone mad”, and a “cross between a boiler explosion and a railroad accident”. That dazzle bore such a similarity to burgeoning movements in art wasn’t lost on the artists, either – Picasso even claimed that Dazzle was actually his idea.

But Modern art, which had been introduced in America at the 1913 Armory Show, was an object of derision and suspicion for contemporary newspapers. “Very frequently in newspapers and magazines, they were trying to explain it to the public and I think [the public] had great difficulty believing it was legitimate,” says Behrens. “But on the other hand, that’s why it was fascinating.” This amusement and fascination in equal measure reflected how the public saw dazzle. It was lampooned in newspaper cartoons, of course – one image shows painters tarring a road in dazzle patterns – but its distinctive look also popped up on bathing suits and dresses, cars and window displays. “Dazzle balls”, for which attendees dressed in dazzle-inspired costumes, gained popularity as ways to raise money for the war effort.

Still, convincing Naval personnel dazzle was more than just fun was difficult. “I had a large of collection of [correspondence from] experienced Navy officers and ship captains making fun of it. It made them sick that their pristine ship was painted with all these Jezebel patterns,” says Behrens, noting that the idea of these flashy ships seemed to subvert their sense of military order. The ships were so wild that some American observers started calling them “jazz” ships, after the improvisational style of popular contemporary music. But Warner, who applied a scientific rigor to understanding how his designs worked, rejected that comparison. Dazzle was, he said, “firmly grounded in the book of Euclid” on geometric principles of visual disruption and proportion, and was not the work of a “group of crazy Cubists”, Behrens recounted in his book, False Colors.

However founded on science it was, determining whether Dazzle actually worked is difficult. In theory, it should work: Behrens found that in 1919, near the end of the war, an MIT engineering student studied the efficacy of individual designs using one of the original model observation theaters provided by the Navy. Three sets of observers were given the same test that George V and the unnamed American naval commander failed. Designs that yielded a higher degree of course error were considered successful; the most successful were off by as much as 58 degrees, when just 10 degrees would be sufficient for a fired torpedo to miss its target. Similarly, in 2011, researchers from the University of Bristol determined that dazzle patterns could disrupt an observer’s perception of the speed of a moving target, and could even have a place on modern battlefields.

But lab conditions are hardly real life. Forbes, in his book, writes that the Admiralty commissioned a report on dazzled ships that came out in September 1918. The statistics were less than conclusive: In the first quarter of 1918, for example, 72 percent of dazzled ships that were attacked were sunk or damaged versus 62 percent of non-dazzled, implying that dazzle did not minimize torpedo damage.

In the second quarter, the statistics reversed themselves: 60 percent of attacks on dazzled ships ended in sinking or damage, compared to 68 percent of non-dazzled. More dazzled than non-dazzled ships were being attacked in the same period, 1.47 percent versus 1.2 percent, but fewer of the dazzled ships were sunk when hit. The Admiralty concluded that though dazzle probably didn’t hurt, it also probably wasn’t helping. American dazzled ships fared better – of the 1,256 ships dazzled between March 1 and November 11, 1918, both merchant and Naval, only 18 were sunk – perhaps owing to the different seas in which American ships were sailing. Ultimately, Behrens said it’s difficult to retroactively determine whether dazzle was truly a success, noting, “I don’t think it will ever be clear.”

And in truth, it didn’t matter whether dazzle actually worked or not: Insurance companies thought it did and therefore lowered premiums on dazzled ships. At the same time, the Admiralty’s investigation into dazzle noted that even if it didn’t work, morale on dazzled ships was higher than on non-dazzled and that was reason alone to keep it.

By November 1918, however, the war was over, though the battle between Wilkinson and the Scottish naturalist Kerr over who actually invented dazzle was just heating up. Kerr argued that he’d introduced the Admiralty to a similar idea back in 1914 and demanded recognition. The Admiralty eventually sided with Wilkinson and awarded him £2,000 for dazzle; for years after, however, Kerr never gave up the idea that he’d been cheated and the two men would trade snide comments through the next war. But exactly what they were fighting over was soon forgotten. Ships require frequent painting – it’s part of what keeps them preserved – so the Allied vessels lost their dazzled coating under a more sober gray. Though World War II saw a resurgence of dazzle in an effort to hide a ship’s class and make, its use was limited and dazzle’s legacy was again buried under layers of maritime paint.

Sort of. Because though dazzle’s influence on naval warfare may have been short-lived, its impact on art and culture remains significant even now. Dazzle, though functional in its intent, was also part of a wave of Futurism, cubism, expressionism, and abstract art that eroded the centuries of representational art’s dominance. The look of dazzle later re-emerged in 1960s Op-art, which employed similar techniques of perspective and optical illusion, and in the mass market fashion that followed. Even today, dazzle remains fashionable, recalled in the aggressive patterns of designers like Jonathan Saunders, or more directly referenced in the “Urban Dazzle” collection of French sportswear designer Lacoste, the Dazzle rainboots from Hunter, and upscale British handbag label Mulberry’s Dazzle collection.

“Dazzle is just everywhere, it’s such a successful visual design system. It’s hugely attractive… I think it’s been used – plundered as it were – but used as a kind of inspiration certainly in fashion,” notes Jenny Waldman, director of 14-18 Now, an ambitious arts program working in partnership with the Imperial War Museum, the British government, and U.K. arts organizations to commemorate the centenary of the World War I. Dazzle was everywhere but on ships – even if the designs themselves weren’t forgotten, the link between them and the war was. “There are a lot of great untold stories, and the dazzle ship is a kind of whopping great untold story,” says Waldman.

That changed, however, when in 2014, 14-18 Now called on contemporary artists to dazzle real-life vessels. Explains Waldman, “The brief was very much to be inspired by the dazzle ships rather then try to recreate the Dazzle designs or functionality in any way.”

Finding artists, Waldman says, was easier than finding ships, but they eventually managed to locate three. The Snowdrop, designed by Sir Peter Blake, the artist who created the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover, is actually a working ferry on the River Mersey in Liverpool and will be operational through December 2016. The other two ships recently finished their deployment: The Edmund Gardner, an historic pilot ship in drydock outside the Mersey Maritime Museum in Liverpool, was painted in green, orange, and black stripes by Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez and the HMS President, which is permanently docked on the River Thames, was dazzled in grey, black, white and orange by artist Tobias Rehberger. The President is one of only three surviving Royal Navy ships that served in the First World War; called the HMS Saxifrage when it was built in 1918, it was actually dazzled by Wilkinson and his team during its tour of duty.

Image by Anthony Beyga/Demotix/Corbis. Legendary British pop artist Sir Peter Blake, who designed the Beatles iconic Sergeant Pepper album sleeve, was commissioned to "dazzle" a Mersey ferry that was unveiled today as part of First World War commemorations. (original image)

Image by FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA/epa/Corbis. Dazzle camouflage ship on the River Thames (original image)

Image by FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA/epa/Corbis. The dazzle camouflage was used extensively during the First World War as a means of camouflaging a ship using bright colors and geometric shapes to make it difficult for the enemy to target it accurately. (original image)

So far, more than 13.5 million people have seen, visited, or sailed on the dazzled ships and 14-18 Now recently announced that a fourth ship, the MV Fingal, a former lighthouse tender docked at the Port of Leith in Edinburgh, will be dazzled by Scottish artist Ciara Phillips. The ship will be unveiled in late May, in time for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

“The wonderful thing about our ships is that they are very big and they’re very public, and the Mersey ferry you can go on, it makes them hugely accessible,” says Waldman. The fact that they show very well on social media has helped to spread the story of the dazzle ships. The ships also speak, as Waldman says, to “the power of contemporary art to reveal and explore the unknown stories of the First World War.” Waldman continued, “People see the dazzle ferry and they think, ‘I want to go on that, that looks phenomenal’ and when they’re on it, they find out more. And then they tell their friends and 13-and-a-half million people now know about the dazzle ships.”

So perhaps this time, the story of the dazzle ships and their place in the science and art of making war won’t be forgotten.

When the Idea of Home Was Key to American Identity

Smithsonian Magazine

Like viewers using an old-fashioned stereoscope, historians look at the past from two slightly different angles—then and now. The past is its own country, different from today. But we can only see that past world from our own present. And, as in a stereoscope, the two views merge.

I have been living in America’s second Gilded Age—our current era that began in the 1980s and took off in the 1990s—while writing about the first, which began in the 1870s and continued into the early 20th century. The two periods sometimes seem like doppelgängers: worsening inequality, deep cultural divisions, heavy immigration, fractious politics, attempts to restrict suffrage and civil liberties, rapid technological change, and the reaping of private profit from public governance.

In each, people debate what it means to be an American. In the first Gilded Age, the debate centered on a concept so encompassing that its very ubiquity can cause us to miss what is hiding in plain sight. That concept was the home, the core social concept of the age. If we grasp what 19th-century Americans meant by home, then we can understand what they meant by manhood, womanhood, and citizenship.

I am not sure if we have, for better or worse, a similar center to our debates today. Our meanings of central terms will not, and should not, replicate those of the 19th century. But if our meanings do not center on an equivalent of the home, then they will be unanchored in a common social reality. Instead of coherent arguments, we will have a cacophony.

A Currier & Ives print called “Home Sweet Home” (Image courtesy of Library of Congress)

When reduced to the “Home Sweet Home” of Currier and Ives lithographs, the idea of “home” can seem sentimental. Handle it, and you discover its edges. Those who grasped “home” as a weapon caused blood, quite literally, to flow. And if you take the ubiquity of “home” seriously, much of what we presume about 19th-century America moves from the center to the margins. Some core “truths” of what American has traditionally meant become less certain.

It’s a cliché, for example, that 19th-century Americans were individualists who believed in inalienable rights. Individualism is not a fiction, but Horatio Alger and Andrew Carnegie no more encapsulated the dominant social view of the first Gilded Age than Ayn Rand does our second one. In fact, the basic unit of the republic was not the individual but the home, not so much isolated rights-bearing-citizen as collectives—families, churches, communities, and volunteer organizations. These collectives forged American identities in the late-19th century, and all of them orbited the home. The United States was a collection of homes.

Evidence of the power of the home lurks in places rarely visited anymore. Mugbooks, the illustrated county histories sold door to door by subscription agents, constituted one of the most popular literary genres of the late-19th century. The books became monuments to the home. If you subscribed for a volume, you would be included in it. Subscribers summarized the trajectories of their lives, illustrated on the page. The stories of these American lives told of progress from small beginnings—symbolized by a log cabin—to a prosperous home.

A picture from a late 19th century “mugbook”: Ira and Susan Warren of Calhoun County, Michigan represented millions of Americans who saw the meaning of their lives in establishing, sustaining, and protecting homes. (Image courtesy of History of Calhoun County, Michigan by H. B. Pierce, L.H. Everts & Co, 1877)

The concept of the home complicated American ideas of citizenship. Legally and constitutionally, Reconstruction proclaimed a homogenous American citizenry, with every white and black man endowed with identical rights guaranteed by the federal government.

In practice, the Gilded Age mediated those rights through the home. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments established black freedom, citizenship, civil rights, and suffrage, but they did not automatically produce homes for black citizens. And as Thomas Nast recognized in one of his most famous cartoons, the home was the culmination and proof of freedom.

“Emancipation,” an illustration by Thomas Nast from around 1865 (Image courtesy of Library of Congress)

Thus the bloodiest battles of Reconstruction were waged over the home. The Klan attacked the black home. Through murder, arson, and rape, Southern terrorists aimed to impart a lesson: Black men could not protect their homes. They were not men and not worthy of the full rights of citizenship.

In attacking freedpeople, terrorists sought to make them cultural equivalents of Chinese immigrants and Indians—those who, purportedly, failed to establish homes, could not sustain homes, or attacked white homes. Their lack of true homes underlined their supposed unsuitability for full rights of citizenship. Sinophobes repeated this caricature endlessly.

An 1878 lithograph panel called “While they can live on 40 cents a day, and they can’t.” (Image courtesy of Library of Congress)

In the iconography of the period, both so-called “friends” of the Indian and Indian haters portrayed Indians as lacking true homes and preventing whites from establishing homes. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West had Indians attacking cabins and wagon trains full of families seeking to establish homes. They were male and violent, but they were not men. Americans decided who were true men and women by who had a home. Metaphorically, Indians became savages and animals.

A poster for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World in the late 1890s. (Image courtesy od Library of Congress)

Even among whites, a category itself constantly changing during this and other eras, the home determined which people were respectable or fully American. You could get away with a lot in the Gilded Age, but you could neither desert the home nor threaten it. Horatio Alger was a pedophile, but this is not what ultimately cost him his popularity. His great fault, as women reformers emphasized, was that his heroes lived outside the home.

Position people outside the home and rights as well as respectability slip away. Tramps were the epitome of the era’s dangerous classes. Vagrancy—homelessness—became a crime. Single working women were called “women adrift” because they had broken free of the home and, like Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, threatened families. (Carrie broke up homes but she, rather than the men who thought they could exploit her, survived.) European immigrants, too, found their political rights under attack when they supposedly could not sustain true homes. Tenements were, in the words of Jacob Riis, “the death of the home.”

As the great democratic advances of Reconstruction came under attack, many of the attempts to restrict suffrage centered on the home. Small “l” liberal reformers—people who embraced market freedom, small government, and individualism but grew wary of political freedom—sought to reinstitute property requirements. Failing that, they policed voting, demanding addresses for voter registration, a seemingly simple requirement, but one that required permanent residences and punished the transience that accompanied poverty. Home became the filter that justified the exclusion of Chinese immigrants, Indian peoples, eventually African-Americans, transients, and large numbers of the working poor.

The home always remained a two-edged sword. American belief in the republic as a collection of homes could and did become an instrument for exclusion, but it could also be a vehicle for inclusion. Gilded-Age social reformers embraced the home. The Homestead Act sought to expand the creation of homes by both citizens and non-citizens. When labor reformers demanded a living wage, they defined it in terms of the money needed to support a home and family. Freedpeople’s demands for 40 acres and a mule were demands for a home. Frances Willard and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union made “home protection” the basis of their push for political power and the vote for women. Cities and states pushed restrictions on the rights of private landholders to seek wealth at the expense of homes. In these cases, the home could be a weapon for enfranchisement and redistribution. But whether it was used to include or exclude, the idea of home remained at the center of Gilded-Age politics. To lose the cultural battle for the home was to lose, in some cases, virtually everything.

The idea of home has not vanished. Today a housing crisis places homes beyond the reach of many, and the homeless have been exiled to a place beyond the polity. But still, the cultural power of the home has waned.

A new equivalent of home—complete with its transformative powers for good and ill—might be hiding in plain sight, or it could be coming into being. When I ask students, teachers, and public audiences about a modern equivalent to the Gilded-Age home, some suggest family, a concept increasingly deployed in different ways by different people. But I have found no consensus.

If we cannot locate a central collective concept which, for better or worse, organizes our sense of being American, then this second Gilded Age has become a unique period in American history. We will have finally evolved into the atomized individuals that 19th-century liberals and modern libertarians always imagined us to be.

The alternative is not a single set of values, a kind of catechism for Americans, but rather a site where we define ourselves around our relationships to each other rather than by our autonomy. We would quarrel less over what we want for ourselves individually than over what we want collectively. Articulating a central concept that is the equivalent of the 19th-century idea of home would not end our discussions and controversies, but it would center them on something larger than ourselves.

I wish I could announce the modern equivalent of home, but I am not perceptive enough to recognize it yet. I do know that, once identified, the concept will become the ground that anyone seeking to define what it is to be an American must seize.

Richard White, the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University, is the author of The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896 He wrote this essay for What It Means to Be American, a project of the Smithsonian and Zócalo Public Square.

Where Will the New Horizons Probe Go After Pluto?

Smithsonian Magazine

Space exploration is often an exercise in delayed gratification. When the New Horizons spacecraft started its voyage to Pluto in 2006, Twitter had just made its public debut. Now, almost a decade later, social media is awash with gorgeous close-ups of the Pluto system, which is turning out to be more textured and complex than anyone imagined.

The closest part of the spacecraft's visit was brief, just a swoop past Pluto's sunlit face that lasted mere hours. But on-board instruments managed to capture a mountain of data that scientists will be sifting through for years, including signs of large impact craters, multicolored terrain and a dusting of Plutonian atmosphere on the poles of the large moon Charon. The first taste of high-resolution data from the flyby is expected to debut this afternoon.

"New Horizons has sent back and will continue to return the most detailed measurements ever taken of Pluto and its system," NASA administrator Charlie Bolden said in the euphoric moments after the team received word that New Horizons had safely completed its close flyby. "It's a historic win for science and for exploration." So with mission scientists hard at work on Earth, what will New Horizons do now that Pluto is in its rear-view mirror?

For the rest of its operational life, the spacecraft will be barreling on through a region of space called the Kuiper belt, a reservoir of cold, icy bodies on the outskirts of the solar system. In late August, mission managers will select a potential follow-up target: a small Kuiper belt object (KB) in the right orbital spot for a possible rendezvous. These objects are some of the oldest, most pristine nubbins of ice and rock in the solar system—leftovers from the process that formed our cosmic neighborhood some 4.6 billion years ago.

"This would be totally unexplored territory. We've never been close to any of these smaller objects in the Kuiper belt," says mission scientist John Spencer of the Southwest Research Institute. "In the Kuiper belt, the original building blocks of the solar system are still out there, many in the locations where they formed. We can see that record in these smaller objects."

Pluto is also a KBO—the largest one known—and that's actually why it's not as good of a record of the solar system's past, says Casey Lisse, a mission scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). "Pluto is so big that it has altered itself from when it first formed, it densified and contracted," he says. "How we see that is because it's round—it's big enough to have coalesced by its own self gravity to round out the rough edges." If we want to study the most primordial things in the outer solar system, we need to visit much smaller bodies.

Finding the right targets for an extended mission took a combination of grit and luck. "We would not come close to one by random chance—we definitely needed a target," says Spencer. But if Pluto was just a pixelated orb of light even to the powerful eye of the Hubble Space Telescope, how could anyone hope to find images of more distant objects a fraction of its size?

To the scientists' relief, in October 2014 the search team announced that they had spotted three promising options about a billion miles beyond the Pluto system. Two of the objects are brighter and so are probably bigger; early estimates put them both around 34 miles wide. The third option is smaller, maybe about 15 miles wide, but it would be easier to reach after the Pluto encounter.

"One criteria for selecting the target will be fuel," says Curt Niebur, lead program scientist for NASA's New Frontiers program, which funded the New Horizons mission. A course correction requires a big burn of fuel, so the team has to decide on a target and orient the spacecraft by late October or early November to ensure a safe arrival in 2018.

No matter which KBO makes the cut, New Horizons would then give us an unprecedented look at the landscape in this frigid frontier. "We'll only fly close to one KBO, but we'll observe maybe a dozen from a distance," says Spencer. "We'll be looking for moons, looking at the brightness from different angles, so we'll be exploring other objects, but not in nearly the detail as the main target."

This follow-up mission is not yet a given: the Pluto flyby was the primary point of New Horizons, and the team must apply for more funding to extend their science to a small KBO. On the off-chance that the extension doesn't come through, the New Horizons science team will still be collecting information about the waning breezes of the solar wind in this distant region of space, akin to the magnetic and plasma data being still being collected by the two Voyager probes. Voyager 2 may even serve as a guide for New Horizons as it explores the heliosphere, the bubble of solar material that cocoons our solar system as we hurtle through the galaxy.

Launched in August 1977, Voyager 2 sped past Uranus and Neptune before continuing deeper into the heliosphere. It even crossed near Pluto's orbit in 1989, but aiming for a visit would have meant flying through Neptune—obviously, not an option. Now Voyager 2 is about 9.9 billion miles from Earth, in the outer part of the solar bubble called the heliosheath, and it's still transmitting data. New Horizons will be following a similar path into the mysterious fringes of the solar system.

"It's very fortuitous that New Horizons is in about same heliospheric longitude as Voyager 2," says mission scientist Ralph McNutt at APL. "Even though Voyager 2 is a lot farther out, we kind of have an upstream monitor." As with the Voyager probes, the data returned from New Horizons should help scientists better understand what happens when the solar wind starts to fade and interstellar space takes over—important clues to how the heliosphere shields us from damaging high-energy particles known as galactic cosmic rays. New Horizons probably won't make it to the very edge of the bubble before it runs out of fuel, but it will contribute valuable science for decades to come.

"We should have power until the 2030s, so we can get into the outer part of the heliosphere," says Spencer. "As long as we can continue to get good data—and persuade NASA to pay for it—we will keep getting the data, because we will be in a unique environment that we've never been in before." 

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.

Why Basketball Is The Perfect Sport for Virtual Reality

Smithsonian Magazine

On this day in 1891, teacher James Naismith sat down and wrote out the rules for a game that he never could have expected would become one of America’s top sporting exports.

He came up with basketball to satisfy several needs, writes Donald S. McDuaig for YMCA International: the game needed to be easy to learn, playable indoors and it needed to involve many players. After some thinking, he wrote down the 13 rules that are the basis of basketball to this day. Those rules were immortalized in this Canadian broadcast commemorating Naismith, who was from Ontario.

Naismith wasn’t setting out to create a game that would become a multi-billion dollar international franchise. He just wanted something that his students would play. The same simplicity that made his students pick up the game is why courtside seats are so prized.

The first try-out of his new game took place a week later, on December 21. Naismith’s handwritten account of that game still exists today. “I felt that this was a crucial moment in my life as it meant [the] success or failure of my attempt to hold the interest of the class and devise a new game,” he writes.

Naismith lived to see basketball take off, even participating in the ceremonial tip-off at basketball’s first appearance as an Olympic sport at the 1936 Summer Games in Berlin. The sport continued to grow in popularity after his death. Today, in a moment where virtual reality is transforming sports, basketball is poised to have a whole new kind of audience.

Virtual reality is transforming the sports industry, writes Ben Dickson for TechCrunch. Nowhere is that truer than the NBA, which broadcast its first VR game--between the Sacramento Kings and the San Antonio spurs--in November. That season-long experiment is part of a larger campaign to use technology to attract fans from all over the world, writes Eddie Guy for Wired.

VR watchers tuned in on headsets that held their phone, and were able to see plays from angles like right underneath the basket. The footage was broadcast from eight camera points in different places, writes K.M. McFarland for Wired: “courtside at the scorer’s table, one under each basket, one in each of the team’s tunnels to the locker rooms, one above the lower bowl which allows a full-court view, and two roving cameras used in spot situations like sideline reports.”

NBA leaders believe that basketball is the perfect sport for this new medium, he writes, because it’s more intimate than the other three big major-league sports: baseball, football and hockey.

“It’s the only one where the players aren’t wearing a helmet or hat that’s a barrier to knowing them as a person,” Dan Gilber, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, told Guy.  “The closer you feel to the players, the more willing you are to further that connection.”

A sport like football lives and dies on technical details played out over a large field, he writes, so television is its perfect medium. But basketball is played on a much smaller space. “Putting a camera in that courtside seat… could give fans a VR experience that far surpasses the current broadcast, drawing them tighter into the league’s web,” he writes.

The NBA has already used social media to build a worldwide fanbase, Guy writes. “The high points of basketball are eminently shareable,” he writes, and the NBA has encouraged fans to share. It’s helped create a fanbase that will never actually be in the same room as a game, but loves it as much as if they were watching it live. Those same fans can be served by VR.

Basketball has come a long, long way since Naismith. But the simplicity he wanted is still making the game a slam dunk for sports fans.

Why Doesn't Anyone Know How to Talk About Global Warming?

Smithsonian Magazine

When launched last month, the site's editor-in-chief, Ezra Klein, had a sobering message for us all: more information doesn't lead to better understanding. Looking at research conducted by a Yale law professor, Klein argued that when we believe in something, we filter information in a way that affirms our already-held beliefs. "More information...doesn’t help skeptics discover the best evidence," he wrote. "Instead, it sends them searching for evidence that seems to prove them right."

It's disheartening news in many ways—for one, as Klein points out, it cuts against the hopeful hypothesis set out in the Constitution and political speeches that any disagreement is merely a misunderstanding, an accidental debate caused by misinformation. Applied to our highly polarized political landscape, the study's results make the prospect of change seem incredibly difficult.

But when applied to science, the results become more frightening. Science, by definition, is inherently connected to knowledge and facts, and we rely on science to expand our understanding of the world around us. If we reject information based on our personal bias, what does that mean for science education? It's a question that becomes especially relevant when considering global warming, where there appears to be an especially large chasm between scientific knowledge and public understanding.

"The science has become more and more certain. Every year we’re more certain of what we’re seeing," explains Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and associate professor of political science at Texas Tech University. 97 percent of scientists agree that climate change is happening, and 95 percent of scientists believe that humans are the dominant cause. Think of it another way: over a dozen scientists, including the president of the National Academy of Sciences, told the AP that the scientific certainty regarding climate change is most similar to the confidence scientists have that cigarettes contribute to lung cancer. And yet as the scientific consensus becomes stronger, public opinion shows little movement. 

"Overall, the American public’s opinion and beliefs about climate change haven’t changed a whole lot," says Edward Maibach, director of George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication. "In the late 90s, give or take two-thirds of Americans believed that climate change was real and serious and should be dealt with." Maibach hasn't seen that number change much—polls still show about a 63 percent belief in global warming—but he has seen the issue change, becoming more politically polarized. "Democrats have become more and more convinced that climate change is real and should be dealt with, and Republicans have been going in the opposite direction."

It's polarization that leads to a very tricky situation: facts don't bend to political whims. Scientists agree that climate change is happening—and Democrats and Republicans alike are feeling its effects now, all over the country. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) keeps reiterating that things look bleak, but avoiding a disaster scenario is still possible if changes are made right now. But if more information doesn't lead to greater understanding, how can anyone convince the public to act?


In the beginning, there was a question: what had caused the glaciers that once blanketed the Earth to melt? During the Ice Age, which ended around 12,000 years ago, glacial ice covered one-third of the Earth's surface. How was it possible that the Earth's climate could have changed so drastically? In the 1850s, John Tyndall, a Victorian scientist fascinated by evidence of ancient glaciers, became the first person to label carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas capable of trapping heat in the Earth's atmosphere. By the 1930s, scientists had found an increase in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—and an increase in the Earth's global temperature.

In 1957, Hans Suess and Roger Revelle published an article in the scientific journal Tellus that proposed that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had increased as a result of a post-Industrial Revolution burning of fossil fuels—buried, decaying organic matter that had been storing carbon dioxide for millions of years. But it wasn't clear how much of that newly released carbon dioxide was actually accumulating in the atmosphere, versus being absorbed by plants or the ocean. Charles David Keeling answered the question through careful CO2 measurements that charted exactly how much carbon dioxide was present in the atmosphere—and showed that the amount was unequivocally increasing.

In 1964, a group from the National Academy of Sciences set out to study the idea of changing the weather to suit various agricultural and military needs. What the group members concluded was that it was possible to change climate without meaning to—something they called "inadvertent modifications of weather and climate"—and they specifically cited carbon dioxide as a contributing factor.

Politicians responded to the findings, but the science didn't become political. The scientists and committees of early climate change research were markedly bipartisan, serving on science boards under presidents both Democrat and Republican. Though Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which warned of the dangers of synthetic pesticides, kicked off environmentalism in 1962, the environmental movement didn't adopt climate change as a political cause until much later. Throughout much of the '70s and '80s, environmentalism focused on problems closer to home: water pollution, air quality and domestic wildlife conservation. And these issues weren't viewed through the fracturing political lens often used today—it was Republican President Richard Nixon who created the Environmental Protection Agency and signed the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and a crucial extension of the Clean Air Act into law.

But as environmentalists championed other causes, scientists continued to study the greenhouse effect, a term coined by the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius in the late 1800s. In 1979, the National Academy of Sciences released the Charney Report, which stated that "a plethora of studies from diverse sources indicates a consensus that climate changes will result from man's combustion of fossil fuels and changes in land use."

The scientific revelations of the 1970s led to the creation of the IPCC, but they also caught the attention of the Marshall Institute, a conservative think tank founded by Robert Jastrow, William Nierenberg and Frederick Seitz. The men were accomplished scientists in their respective fields: Jastrow was the founder of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Nierenberg was the former director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Seitz was the former president of the United States National Academy of Sciences. The institute received funding from groups such as the Earhart Foundation and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which supported conservative and free-market research (in recent years, the institute has received funding from Koch foundations). Its initial goal was to defend President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative from scientific attacks, to convince the American public that scientists weren't united in their dismissal of the SDI, a persuasive tactic which enjoyed moderate success.

In 1989, when the Cold War ended and much of the Marshall Institute's projects were no longer relevant, the Institute began to focus on the issue of climate change, using the same sort of contrarianism to sow doubt in the mainstream media. It's a strategy that was adopted by President George W. Bush's administration and the Republican Party, typified when Republican consultant Frank Luntz wrote in a memo:

"Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate."

It's also an identical tactic to one used by the tobacco industry to challenge research linking tobacco to cancer (in fact, Marshall Institute scientist Seitz once worked as a member of the medical research committee for the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company).

But if politicians and strategists created the climate change "debate," the mainstream media has done its part in propagating it. In 2004, Maxwell and Jules Boykoff published "Balance as bias: global warming and the US prestige press," which looked at global warming coverage in four major American newspapers: the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, between 1988 and 2002. What Boykoff and Boykoff found was that in 52.65 percent of climate change coverage, "balanced" accounts were the norm—accounts that gave equal attention to the view that humans were creating global warming and the view that global warming was a matter of natural fluctuations in climate. Nearly a decade after the Charney Report had first flagged man's potential to cause global warming, highly-reputable news sources were still presenting the issue as a debate of equals.

In a study of current media coverage, the Union of Concerned Scientists analyzed 24 cable news programs to determine the incidence of misleading climate change information. The right-leaning Fox News provided misinformation on climate change in 72 percent of its reporting on the issue; left-leaning MSNBC also provided misinformation in 8 percent of its climate change coverage, mostly from exaggerating claims. But the study found that even the nonpartisan CNN misrepresented climate change 30 percent of the time. Its sin? Featuring climate scientists and climate deniers in such a way that furthers the misconception that the debate is, in fact, still alive and well. According to Maibach, the continuing debate over climate science in the media explains why fewer than one in four Americans know how strong the scientific consensus on climate change really is. (CNN did not respond to requests for a comment, but the network hasn't featured a misleading debate since February, when two prominent CNN anchors condemned the network's use of debate in covering climate change.)

Sol Hart, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, recently published a study looking at network news coverage of climate change—something that nearly two-thirds of Americans report watching at least once a month (only a little over a third of Americans, by contrast, reported watching cable news at least once a month). Looking at network news segments about climate change from 2005 to mid-2011, Hart noticed what he perceived as a problem in the networks' coverage of the issue, and it wasn't a balance bias. "We coded for that, and we didn’t see much evidence of people being interviewed on network news talking about humans not having an affect on climate change," he explains.

What he did notice was an incomplete narrative. "What we find is that the impacts and actions are typically not discussed together. Only about 23 percent of all articles on network news talked about impacts and actions in the same story. They don’t talk about them together to create a cohesive narrative."

But is it the media's responsibility to create such a narrative? 

In the decades before the digital revolution, that question was easier to answer. Legacy media outlets historically relied on balance and impartiality; it wasn't their place, they figured, to compel their readers to act on a particular issue. But the information revolution, fueled by the web, has changed the media landscape, blurring the lines between a journalist's role as a factual gatekeeper and an activist.

"With the advent of digital online, there’s a lot more interaction with the audience, there’s a lot more contributions from the audience, there’s citizen journalists, there’s bloggers, there’s people on social media. There are tons and tons of voices," Mark Glaser, executive editor at PBS MediaShift, explains. "It’s hard to just remain this objective voice that doesn’t really care about anything when you’re on Twitter and you’re interacting with your audience and they’re asking you questions, and you end up having an opinion."


For a long time, climate change has been framed as an environmental problem, a scientific conundrum that affects Arctic ice, polar bears and penguins; a famously gut-wrenching scene from Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth mentions polar bears having drowned looking for stable pieces of ice in a warming Arctic Ocean. It's a perfectly logical interpretation, but increasingly, climate scientists and activists are wondering whether or not there's a better way to present the narrative—and they're turning to social scientists, like Hart, to help them figure that out.

"Science has operated for so long on this information deficit model, where we assume that if people just have more information, they’ll make the right decision. Social scientists have news for us: we humans don’t operate that way," Hayhoe explains. "I feel like the biggest advances that have been made in the last ten years in terms of climate change have been in the social sciences."

As Hayhoe spoke about the frustrations of explaining climate change to the public, she mentioned a cartoon that circulated around the internet after the IPCC's most recent report, drawn by Australian cartoonist Jon Kudelka.

For scientists like Katharine Hayhoe, Jon Kudelka's cartoon sums up the frustrations from communicating climate change to the public. (Jon Kudelka )

"I think that my colleagues and I are becoming increasingly frustrated with having to repeat the same information again and again, and again and again and again—and not just year after year, but decade after decade," Hayhoe says.

In other countries around the world, the climate change message appears to be getting through. In a Pew poll of 39 countries, global climate change was a top concern for those in Canada, Asia and Latin America. Looking at data from all included countries, a median of 54 percent of people placed global climate change as their top concern—in contrast, only 40 percent of Americans felt similarly. A 2013 global audit of climate change legislation stated that the United States' greenhouse gas emission reduction targets are "relatively modest when compared with other advanced economies." And "almost nowhere" else in the world, according to Bill McKibben in a recent Twitter chat with MSNBC's Chris Hayes, has there been the kind of political fracturing around climate change that we see in the United States.

To help Americans get the message, social scientists have one idea: talk about the scientific consensus not more, but more clearly. Starting in 2013, Maibach and his colleagues at GMU and the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication conducted a series of studies to test if, when presented with the data of scientific consensus, participants changed their mind about climate change. What they found was that in controlled experiments, exposure to a clear message conveying the extent of scientific consensus altered participants' estimate of the scientific consensus significantly. Other experimental studies have turned up similar results—a study conducted by Stephan Lewandowsky of the University of Bristol, for example, found that a clear consensus message made participants more likely to accept scientific facts about climate change. Frank Luntz, to the shock of veteran pundit watchers, was right: a clear scientific consensus does seem to change how people understand global warming.

Partially in response to Maibach's findings, the American Association for the Advancement of Science recently released their report "What We Know: The Reality, Risks and Response to Climate Change." The report, Maibach says, is "really the first effort...that attempted to specifically surface and illuminate the scientific consensus in very clear, simple terms." The report's first paragraph, in plain terms, notes that "virtually every national scientific academy and relevant major scientific organization" agrees about the risks of climate change. The New York Times' Justin Gillis described the report's language as "sharper, clearer and more accessible than perhaps anything the scientific community has put out to date."

And yet, the report wasn't universally heralded as the answer to climate change's communication problem—and it wasn't just under fire from conservatives. Brentin Mock, writing for Grist, wasn't sure the report would win climate scientists new support. "The question is not whether Americans know climate change is happening," he argued. "It’s about whether Americans can truly know this so long as the worst of it is only happening to 'certain other vulnerable' groups." Slate's Philip Plait also worried that the report was missing something important. "Facts don’t speak for themselves; they need advocates. And these advocates need to be passionate," he wrote. "You can put the facts up on a blackboard and lecture at folks, but that will be almost totally ineffective. That’s what many scientists have been doing for years and, well, here we are."

To some, the movement needs more a scientific consensus. It needs a human heart.


Matthew Nisbet has spent a lot of time thinking about how to talk about climate change. He's been studying climate change from a social science perspective since his graduate studies at Cornell University in the late 1990s and early 2000s and currently works as an associate professor at American University's School of Communications. And though he acknowledges the importance of a scientific consensus, he's not convinced it's the only way to get people thinking about climate change.

"If the goal is to increase a sense of urgency around climate change, and support an intensity of opinion for climate change being a lead policy issue, how do we make that happen?" he asks. "It’s not clear that affirming consensus would be a good long-term strategy for building concern."

Nisbet wanted to know if the context in which climate change is discussed could affect people's views about climate change: is the environmental narrative the most effective, or could there be another way to talk about climate change that might engage a wider audience? Along with Maibach and other climate change social scientists, Nisbet conducted a study that framed climate change in three ways: in a way that emphasized the traditional environmental context, in a way that emphasized the national security context and in a way that emphasized the public health context. 

They thought that maybe placing the issue of climate change in the context of national security could help win over conservatives—but their results showed something different. When it came to changing the opinions of minorities and conservatives—the demographics most apathetic or hostile to climate change—public health made the biggest impact.

"For minorities, where unemployment might be 20 percent in some communities, they face everyday threats like crime. They face discrimination. Climate change is not going to be a top of mind risk to them," Nisbet explains. "But when you start saying that climate change is going to make things that they already suffer from worse, once you start talking about it that way, and the communicators are not environmentalists or scientists but public health officials and people in their own community, now you've got a story and a messenger that connects to who they are."

The public health angle has been a useful tool for environmentalist before—but it is especially effective when combined with tangible events that unequivocally demonstrate the dangers. When smog blanketed the industrial town of Donora, Pennsylvania in 1948 for five days, killing 20 people and rendering another 6,000 ill, America became acutely aware of the danger air pollution posed to public health. Events like this eventually spurred action on the Clear Air Act, which has played a large part in the reduction of six major air pollutants by 72 percent since its passage.

One voice that has begun focusing on the tangible impacts of climate change by showing its effects on everything from public health to agriculture is Showtime's new nine-part documentary series "Years of Living Dangerously." Eschewing images of Arctic ice and polar bears, the show tackles the human narrative head-on, following celebrity hosts as they explore the real-time effects of climate change, from conflict in Syria to drought in Texas. Over at the Guardian, John Abraham described the television series as "the biggest climate science communication endeavor in history."

But, as Alexis Sobel Fitts pointed out in her piece "Walking the public opinion tightrope," not all responses to the series have been positive. In a New York Times op-ed, representatives of the Breakthrough Institute, a bipartisan think tank committed to "modernizing environmentalism," argue that the show relies too heavily on scare tactics, which might ultimately harm its message. "There is every reason to believe that efforts to raise public concern about climate change by linking it to natural disasters will backfire," the op-ed states. "More than a decade’s worth of research suggests that fear-based appeals about climate change inspire denial, fatalism and polarization." "Years of Living Dangerously"'s reception, Fitts argues, reflects complex public opinion—for a subject as polarizing as climate change, you're never going to be able to please everyone.

Glaser agrees that the situation is complex, but feels that the media owes the public honesty, whether or not the truth can be deemed alarmist.

"I think the media probably should be alarmist. Maybe they haven’t been alarmist enough. It’s a tough balancing act, because if you present something to people and it’s a dire situation, and that’s the truth, they might just not want to accept it," he says. "That response, to say, 'This is just exaggerated,' is just another form of denial."


Climate change, some say, is like an ink blot test: everyone who looks at the problem sees something different, which means that everyone's answer to the problem will inherently be different, too. Some social scientists, like Nisbet, think that such a diversity of opinions can be a strength, helping create a vast array of solutions to tackle such a complicated issue.

"We need more media forums where a broad portfolio of technologies and strategies are discussed, as well as the science," Nisbet explains. "People need to feel efficacious about climate change—what can they do, in their everyday lives, to help climate change?"

Sol Hart, the Michigan professor, agrees that the current climate change narrative is incomplete. "From a persuasive perspective, you want to combine threat and efficacy information," he explains. "So often, the discussion is that there are very serious impacts on the horizon and action needs to be taken now, but there’s not much detail on action that could be taken."

Adding more context to stories might help round out the current narrative. "There’s such noise and chaos around a lot of big stories, and people just take these top-line items and don’t really dig deeper into what are the underlying issues. I think that’s been a big problem," Glaser explains. Slate has been doing explanatory journalism for years with its Explainer column, and other sites, like Vox and The Upshot (an offshoot of the New York Times) are beginning to follow a similar model, hoping to add context to news stories by breaking them down into their component parts. According to Glaser, that's reason for optimism. "I think news organizations do have a responsibility to frame things better," he says. "They should give more context and frame things so that people can understand what’s going on."

But Hayhoe thinks that we need more than just scientists or the media—we need to engage openly with one another.

"If you look at science communication [in Greek and Roman times] there were no scientific journals, it wasn’t really an elite field of correspondence between the top brains of the age. It was something that you discussed in the Forum, in the Agora, in the markets," she says. "That’s the way science used to be, and then science evolved into this Ivory Tower."

One organization that's trying to bring the conversation down from the Ivory Tower and into the lives of ordinary citizens is MIT's Climate CoLab, part of the university's Center for Collective Intelligence, which seeks to solve the world's most complex problems through crowdsourcing collective intelligence. Without even signing up for an account, visitors interested in all aspects of the climate change can browse a number of online proposals, written by people from all over the world, which seek to solve problems from energy supply to transportation. If a user wants to become more involved, they can create a profile and comment on proposals, or vote for them. Proposals—which can be submitted by anyone—go through various rounds of judging, both by CoLab users and expert judges. Winning proposals present their ideas in a conference at MIT, in front of experts and potential implementers. 

"One of the things that's novel and unique about the Climate CoLab is the degree to which we're not just saying 'Here's what's happening,' or 'Here's how you should change your opinions,'" Thomas Malone, the CoLab's principal investigator, explains. "What we're doing in the Climate CoLab is saying, 'What can we do, as the world?' And you can help figure that out.'"

Climate change is a tragedy of the commons, meaning that it requires collective action that runs counter to individual desires. From a purely self-interested standpoint, it might not be in your best interest to give up red meat and stop flying on airplanes so that, say, all of Bangladesh can remain above sea level or southeast China doesn't completely dry out—that change requires empathy, selflessness and a long-term vision. That's not an easy way of thinking, and it runs counter to many Americans' strong sense of individualism. But by the time that every human on Earth suffers enough from the effects of rising temperatures that they can no longer ignore the problem, it will be too late.

Why Teddy Roosevelt Is Popular On Both Sides of the Political Aisle

Smithsonian Magazine

A president’s career can extend well beyond his death, as family, friends, and fans work tirelessly to maintain his legacy and image.

For roughly 10 years, I have studied the legacy of the 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt. Even after a decade, I continue to be astounded by how regularly Roosevelt is invoked in politics and beyond.

Today, TR is ubiquitous. If you follow sports, you may have seen Teddy Goalsevelt, the self-appointed mascot for Team USA soccer who ran for FIFA president in 2016. Or you may have watched the giant-headed Roosevelt who rarely wins the Presidents’ Race at Washington Nationals baseball games. If you enjoy the cinema, you will likely recall Robin Williams as Roosevelt in the Night at the Museum trilogy, or might know that a biopic starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Roosevelt is slated for production.

In politics, Roosevelt has become the rare figure popular with both left and right. Vice President Mike Pence recently compared his boss Donald Trump to Roosevelt; in 2016, candidate Hillary Clinton named the Rough Rider as her political lodestar. Environmentalists celebrate Roosevelt as the founding father of conservation and a wilderness warrior, and small business interests celebrate his battles against large corporations.

And more than a century after he was shot in Milwaukee during the 1912 presidential campaign, Roosevelt remains a target; last year, his statue in front of the Museum of Natural History in New York was splattered in red paint in protest of its symbolic relationship to white supremacy, among other things.

Roosevelt’s high profile is no mere accident of history. Shortly after Roosevelt’s death, two memorial associations organized and worked to perpetuate his legacy.

One of these organizations sought to tie Roosevelt to the politics of the early 20th century, and cast him as a national icon of Americanism. At that time, Americanism stood for patriotism and civic-mindedness, as well as anti-communism and anti-immigration. This ideology helped Republicans win back the White House in 1920, but it also galvanized the first Red Scare.

The second memorial organization rejected the political approach to commemoration, choosing to represent Roosevelt’s legacy in artistic, creative, and utilitarian forms, including monuments, films, artwork, and by applying the Roosevelt name to bridges and buildings. Of course, some of these activities had implicit political angles, but they generally avoided association with overt causes, in favor of historical commemoration. When it came to fundraising, the apolitical organization raised 10 times as much income as the political one, and within ten years the two organizations folded into a single memorial association that abandoned political interpretations. Roosevelt became bipartisan and polygonal.

This is not to say Roosevelt’s legacy lost all meaning. Quite the opposite; our perception of Roosevelt has endured a number of declines and revivals. And, through the rounds of historical revision and re-revision, he has maintained certain characteristics.

His civic-minded Americanism endures, as does his record as a conservationist and a progressive. Roosevelt still evokes an image of an American cowboy, a preacher of righteousness, and a leading intellectual.

Most interestingly, these elements of his legacy are not mutually exclusive. Invoking one does not require us to exclude another. For example, Barack Obama promoted the Affordable Care Act in 2010 by memorializing Roosevelt’s advocacy for national healthcare in 1911. Obama could recall Roosevelt’s progressivism while avoiding the Bull Moose’s mixed record on race relations or his support of American imperialism. In short, commemorators can take from Roosevelt what they want and, consequently, his legacy grows ever more complex and elastic.

The upcoming centenary of Roosevelt’s death in January 2019 offers us an opportunity to understand more about how presidential legacies are shaped by successive generations. Images of former presidents come from various sources, and because they can act as a powerful emblem for any cause, their images proliferate without much scrutiny.

Politicians are well aware of this. Sarah Palin, a right-wing Republican, co-opted the legacy of Democrat Harry Truman in her 2008 vice-presidential nomination speech, and Barack Obama had a penchant for invoking Ronald Reagan. In a political swamp full of alligators, summoning the ghosts of dead presidents is relatively safe ground.

Likewise, commercial advertisers take great liberty with the past. Beer and whiskey producers have long used presidents as brand ambassadors (Old Hickory bourbon and Budweiser are good examples). Automobile companies have named vehicles for Washington, Monroe, Lincoln, Grant, Cleveland, and Roosevelt.

These contemporary invocations remind us of the real value of legacy, however it might be interpreted. The past has meaning for the present, and that meaning can be translated into advantage. Truth is not the highest value in the contest between presidential ghosts.

Happy Warrior: Teddy Roosevelt in 1919, the last year of his life. (Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.)

Despite being the subject of scholarly historical biographies that document their lives with precision and care, American presidents are dogged by half-truths, myths, and arbitrary citations in public memory. At a time when our political climate is referred to as “post-truth,” and a celebrity tycoon who has mastered the art of self-promotion sits in the Oval Office, it is worth reflecting on how these legacies are produced.

If, as philosopher Williams James once said, “The use of a life is to spend it for something that outlasts it,” the former American presidents have lived boundlessly productive lives, with legacies that far outlast their tenure. But because their legacies are produced by successive generations, they often tell us more about the agents of commemoration than the men who sat behind the Resolute Desk.

Examining presidential legacies helps us solve a historical problem: It allows us to see who shapes our perceptions of the past. Memorializers lay claim to historical narratives and create the illusion of public memory, invoking select elements of our shared past as shiny baubles to emulate and admire. So by understanding these myths, the mythmakers, and the motives of memorialization, we can see a laminated past with countless layers. The more myths and the more layers, the more insight we gain into the ways the past connects with the present, and the present with the future.

The “real” Theodore Roosevelt is lost to us. He is an imagined character, even to family. Theodore Roosevelt’s grandson Archie met his grandfather only once. Still, every time he visited Sagamore Hill—his grandfather’s home in Oyster Bay, Long Island—he sensed his ghost. Archie felt that TR’s spirit looked over the kids as they played. On numerous occasions Archie reflected on his grandfather’s likely expectations for his family and even attempted to model his life on that conception. “We knew him only as a ghost,” Archie related, “but what a merry, vital, and energetic ghost he was. And how much encouragement and strength he left behind to help us play the role Fate has assigned us for the rest of the century.”

Indeed, conjuring Roosevelt’s ghost gives us another means of observing the last century, a period of time that Roosevelt himself never saw. Because so many have invoked Roosevelt in the way Archie did, examining his legacy helps to illustrate the motives and judgements of those who remember the past. Theodore Roosevelt’s ghost continues to haunt public memory because we continue to conjure it. TR has been dead for a century, but we refuse to let him rest in peace, believing the use of his life can help us achieve our ends.

Why We Should Study Cancer Like We Study Ecosystems

Smithsonian Magazine

When pine beetles invaded North American forests, they threw a delicate ecosystem out of balance. Cancer cells, too, behave like damaging invasive species. Photo by Flickr user Kneale Quayle

Sometimes, thinking about an old problem from a refreshing new angle is just the thing needed to find that eureka moment.

Cancer, one of the most notorious medical maladies, has been studied intensely in the current era of modern medicine. But a growing number of researchers think that bringing a fresh, out-of-the-box approach to understanding the disease may lead to some novel insights and, perhaps, solutions. And the subject that they’re hoping can serve as a window into the study of cancer may surprise you: ecology.

On face value, oncology and ecology seem vastly different. For starters, one is localized to specific cells in the body, while the other by definition spans the entire globe. But rather than labeling cancer as a group of mutated cells, as the thinking goes, we should see cancer as a disruption in the balance of a complex microenvironment in the human body. Like a damaging invasive beetle eating its way through forests in Colorado, a novel disease breaking out in populations of wild birds, or loggers mowing down parts of the Amazon rainforest, cancer throws a monkey wrench into an otherwise placid, balanced system.

This way of thinking makes cancer seem even more complex than it already is, but it could provide insights that ultimately make cancer more treatable, propose researchers from the Moffet Cancer Center in a paper published in the journal Interface Focus

“Einstein is known to have said that everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler,” they write. “It turns out that complexity has its place and, as convenient as it would be for cancer biologists to study tumor cells in isolation, that makes as much sense as trying to understand frogs without considering that they tend to live near swamps and feast on insects.”

We tend to think of cancer only in terms of mutated cells, the authors continue. But adopting this narrow approach is like trying to understand why a frog has a sticky tongue without taking into account that frogs use their tongues to catch insects. Cancer cells, likewise, need context. A voracious cancer cell, for example, may situate itself next to a blood vessel not by chance, but so it can obtain more nutrients and oxygen to support its unlimited division.

Cancer cells must compete within the body for nutrients and other resources, just like animals living in an environment must compete with one another in order to survive. This means that cancer, like any organism, must adapt to its environment in order to thrive. The researchers explain: 

It is now beginning to be widely accepted that cancer is not just a genetic disease but the one in which evolution plays a crucial role. This means that tumour cells evolve, adapt to and change the environment in which they live. The ones that fail to do so will ultimately become extinct. The ones that do, will have a chance to invade and metastasize. The capacity of a tumour cell to adapt to a new environment will thus be determined by environment and the cellular species from the original site, to which it has already painstakingly adapted.

So how can all of this theory be applied in real life? The environmental approach to understanding cancer is so complex that it rules out normal experiments; they could easily go awry with so many different components to consider. Instead, the researchers suggest turning to mathematics and computational for understanding the greater environmental context that leads to cancer. Ecologists use one such mathematical approach, game theory, as a way to study evolutionary biology and the way animals interact: 

The force of natural selection keeps ecosystem denizens focused on optimizing the bottom line: long-term reproduction. In the games studied by evolutionary game theoreticians, individuals compete for available resources using a variety of strategies. These features and behaviours, known as the phenotypic strategy, determine the winners and losers of evolution.

Behavioral strategies may change depending upon both an animal’s nature and the situation’s context. Here’s a hypothetical example, based upon game theory thinking: If two hyenas are digging into a large, tasty wildebeest carcass, they’ll happily share that resource. But if two lions find that same carcass, they will fight for exclusive rights to eating it, meaning one lion emerges victorious and takes all the meaty spoils, while the other gets no food–plus is injured. Finally, if a lion meets a hyena at the carcass, the hyena will bolt, surrendering its goods to the stronger lion. In other words, game theory players can react one of three ways depending upon who they are and what’s going on: they can share, fight or forfeit.

Like a swath of clear-cut jungle or an invasive species slowly spreading out and leaving a trail of damage in its wake, a tumors, like the one above, affects and is affected by the tissue in its surrounding environment. Photo by Flickr user Ed Uthman

Similar games may be played with tumor cells. “A good example would be a tumour with cells that move away when confronted with scarce resources (motile) and cells that stay to use them (proliferative),” the authors write. To make things even more complicated, however, tumor cells are known to change their behavior as they proliferate and metastasize throughout the body, meaning they could switch from a hyena to a lion.

One crucial thing that game theory at an ecosystem level shows us, they continue, is that indiscriminately focusing on killing as many tumor cells as possible might not provide the best outcome for the patient. According to game theory models, the eventual long-term result of the game depends upon specific interactions between the players, not on the number of players involved. Lions will continue to fight one another for food, regardless of whether two lions or 2,000 lions meet. “A treatment based exclusively on indiscriminately removing most (but not all) cancer cells may only have a temporary effect; as in most cases, the original number of tumor cells will eventually be restored and exceeded,” the authors write. 

Instead, game theory indicates that a more effective alternative would be based on trying to change the ways that cells interact with one another and with their environment. This may affect the cells’ behavior, strength and reproductive success, the authors explain, which could drive a tumor’s evolution towards less aggressive cell types, or to a more stable coexistence with non-cancerous cells.

“The ecosystem view is, ultimately, a holistic one that sees cancer progression as a process that emerges from the interactions between multiple cellular species and interactions with the tumour microenvironment,” the authors write. “An ecosystem perspective presents us with intriguing implications,” they say, along with a host of questions about how far the analogy between ecosystems and cancer can be taken.

For example, if cancer cells spread like an invasive species through an ecosystem, what evolutionary gain is achieved when the closed off ecosystem (a body) is irreparably damaged (through a person’s death) such that the pestilence also dies? Unlike a virus, which may kill its host but spread to other hosts in the process, cancer cells themselves, for the most part, have no means of spreading from individual to individual. And are cancer cells taking their cues from processes driven by competition or from cooperation? Thinking more proactively, can non-cancerous cells be triggered so that they behave like lions and usurp cancerous cells’ resources until the cancer is manageable?

While ecology and mathematics likely will not defeat cancer on their own, viewing the disease from this perspective could allow doctors to better predict where in the body tumor cells have the best and worst chances of survival, and how to most effectively prevent them from proliferating.

“The heart of the matter is that an ecological view of tumours does not invalidate but complements and builds upon decades of cancer research and undoubtedly this will lead to a better understanding of the biology of cancer and to new and improved therapies,” the researchers conclude. “We need to properly understand the trees (e.g. every leaf, twig and branch) before we can understand the forest but we cannot afford to ignore the forest because the trees are so interesting on their own.”

Why You Should Appreciate the Invention of the Bendy Straw

Smithsonian Magazine

Many inventions are intended to solve problems–like the bendy straw.

The now-ubiquitous drinking tool was patented on this day in 1937 by an inventor named Joseph Friedman. It took an existing invention, colloquially known as the “soda straw” and made it accessible to people who couldn’t sit up at a tall counter and bend their heads to just the angle required to drink out of a straight straw. 

Friedman wrote in the patent documents that his invention related to “that type of drinking tube known in the trade as a ‘soda straw.’” While these straws were sometimes actual pieces of straw, he writes, they were more usually “wound or otherwise formed from oiled paper, paraffin paper, Cellophane, or the like.”  

The first drinking straw of this type–made of coiled paper dipped in paraffin wax–dates back to the 1880s, writes Derek Thompson for The Atlantic, when it was invented and patented by a man named Marvin Chester Stone. While it was a popular invention, Friedman experienced a problem with it firsthand at some point in the 1930s, writes Thompson. According to the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Friedman was seated at the Varsity Sweet Shop in San Francisco with his young daughter Judith. After watching her struggle to drink a milkshake out of a too-tall straw, he had an idea. The center writes:

Friedman, an inventor with a natural curiosity and a creative instinct, took the straw and inserted a screw. He then wrapped dental floss around the paper into the screw threads, creating corrugations. After he removed the screw, the altered paper straw would bend conveniently over the edge of the glass, allowing a small child to better reach the beverage.

Friedman couldn’t make his daughter taller or make the counter shorter, so he designed a straw that would adapt to the situation. His patent acknowledged that he wasn’t the first to think of bending a straw, but he was the first to design a purpose-built bendy straw that could bend without creating a crease that blocked the flow of liquid.

It took some time to create the machinery necessary to make bendy straws on an industrial scale, but Friedman’s company Flex-Straw made its first sale in 1947, to a hospital, according to the Lemelson Center. “Solving the ‘Judith problem’ had created a multi-million dollar business,” writes Thompson.

Friedman held a number of other patents, Marianne Riley writes for the National Museum of American History. His first, for a fountain pen that showed the amount of ink left before it needed to be refilled, demonstrated the same talent for making small but crucial improvements to existing products. In the case of the bendy straw, his best-known invention, he looked at something and saw how it could be improved to make it accessible for more people–like his children and hospital patients or anyone else who had trouble bending their head to the exact angle required by a straight straw. Because of this, the straw is cited as a case study for "universal design," a mode of thinking that tries to make products accessible to as many people as possible.

Wide Angle Lens, Camera, Television, Apollo 7

National Air and Space Museum
This RCA camera and attached 100mm wide-angle lens were part of the first television broadcast from space. This took place during the Apollo 7 mission when astronauts Wally Schirra, Walter Cunningham, and Donn Eisle orbited the Earth hundreds of times over their ten day mission. The black and white camera had three lenses, including a wide angle lens, which was used most frequently. This type of lens and camera were used extensively for orbital and lunar television transmissions during the Apollo program.

NASA transferred this camera and lens to the Museum in 1972.

Wiegand’s Patent Model of a Gas Engine – ca 1864

National Museum of American History
This model was filed with the application to the U.S. Patent Office for Patent Number 44,572 issued to S. Lloyd Wiegand of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on October 4, 1864. Mr. Wiegand’s patent was for improvements in gas engines. Claimed improvements included: protection against the buildup of carbon deposits on the piston and cylinder; more accurate and fuel-efficient speed control; and a lower cost and higher durability construction.

Mr. Wiegand’s engine was designed to use “illuminating gas” which was a coal based product used for gas lighting. Due to inefficiency in combining the gas and air, carbon deposits were left on the surfaces of the combustion chambers. This damaged the seals between the cylinders and pistons resulting in leakage and reduced power. The patent called for a fluid to be injected into the cylinders via channels near the seals. The fluid would loosen and eject the carbon through the exhaust.

To improve the speed regulation and fuel-efficiency of the engine, Mr. Wiegand varied the timing of the intake valves. A shaft governor was included in one of the engine’s two flywheels, and this was coupled to a mechanism that adjusted the angle of the cam which opened and closed the valve. If the engine exceeded its desired speed, the cam adjustment would shorten the time the intake valve was open. The reduction in the amount of fuel entering the engine soon slowed it.

A search of available literature did not reveal any practical use of the patent. Shortly after Mr. Wiegand’s patent, N. A. Otto and others patented advances in gas engine such as compressing the fuel-air mixture prior to combustion and the introduction of the four stroke engine design.

The model as shown in the image illustrates all of the key elements of the patent except for the internal details of the valves and cylinders. It is constructed of metal. Diagrams showing the complete design can be found in the patent document online (/

Wildlife Photographer Frans Lanting on the Difference Between Taking Pictures and Making Photographs

Smithsonian Magazine

The aye-aye is a rare, nocturnal Madagascar primate with a bushy tail that resembles a cross between a squirrel and a possum and grows to about 16 inches long. For its bizarre appearance, it has been called the world’s strangest primate. Thirty years ago, nature photographer Frans Lanting, on assignment for National Geographic magazine set out to track the elusive primate to capture it on film. At the time, there were “practically no photographs of aye-ayes, ” he says.

“Frans became known before he even reached a village as ‘The man who searches for aye-aye,’” says Chris Eckstrom, Lanting’s wife, a videographer and former National Geographic writer, on a recent tour of the show.

“The local people are so fearful of those creatures that they often didn’t even want to hear the name pronounced,” Lanting adds. “It’s associated with evil and bad luck.” But a farmer finally led him to a place where an aye-aye could be seen in the tree canopy scooping out the flesh of a coconut.

Lanting's image of the aye-aye is one of more than 60 currently on view in the new exhibition, “National Geographic Into Africa: The Photography of Frans Lanting” at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., which includes a booth where viewers can snap selfies in front of one of Lanting's wall-sized images of two rhinoceroses.

Lanting sees the explosion of interest in photography, including the sort that is sure to happen at the rhino  photo booth, as refreshing. Where photography was once a highly specialized activity, now anyone with a smartphone can take and share photographs. “There’s no excuse not to take pictures,” Lanting says. “Everyone is a citizen with a camera in their hands. We know with recent social issues and political eruptions how important that is.”

Amateur photographers can also get very creative with their smartphones and apps. “I think we are just seeing the beginning of a new era in photography,” Lanting says. “What it does to the more deliberate kinds of photography, of which this exhibition is a result—hopefully it’ll stimulate a small percentage of the people who start with this to consider taking the next step from taking pictures to making photographs.”

Walking through the exhibition with Lanting and Eckstrom and hearing some of the stories behind the photographs, one has a sense of what former National Geographic photography director Thomas Kennedy meant when he said of Lanting: “He has the mind of a scientist, the heart of a hunter, and the eyes of a poet.”

Frans Lanting and wife and partner Chris Eckstrom, a writer and videographer, in Senegal in 2007. (Frans Lanting/

Asked about the description, Lanting says: “You have to be analytical. If you don’t understand what you are photographing, you are just looking at the surface of things. If you can’t get into this dance with wild animals, you remain a scientist,” he says. “There’s an interaction that goes on between animals and myself, and I’m working with them. It’s not as simple as sitting there and aiming a large telephoto lens from a great distance.” Although he isn’t a hunter, there are aspects of his photography that resemble hunting, Lanting adds. “And ultimately, you have to be able to express things in a way that is lyrical and poetical, or else it’s just a record.”

Even if the overwhelming majority of the works in the show are “realistic,” some of Lanting’s works on display in “Into Africa” have abstract components. The image “Hunters Reflected,” taken in Botswana in 1989, shows a detail of a zebra’s head, but in its green eye, there is a hint of a reflection of the trophy hunter who shot it, a hunting guide, and Lanting himself. The work shifts the focus from the humans to the animal, whose stripes and eyelashes dwarf the tiny reflected figures. Lanting framed the work that way, he says, not to condemn hunting, but to “make it more of an abstraction of the activity itself.”

Botswana’s president recently placed a moratorium on all hunting in the country. “That’s a bold move,” Lanting says. “There was an era when people went to Africa to connect with wildlife through the [clicking sound], through a gun. These days, it’s mostly through a camera, or through binoculars. That’s certainly a more sustainable activity.”

The photograph of the zebra epitomizes what Lanting describes as the couple's artistic process. “What Chris and I do together is to not just [capture] the surface beauty, but also to come up with an interpretation of the wild places and the wild places that are dear to our hearts,” he says. “There’s a lot of technical and aesthetic considerations that go into how I frame a situation, but at the same time we are thinking of the storytelling. And that is, of course, part of the great tradition at National Geographic.”

Lanting credits his wife with helping put words to his photographic vision, and nowhere is that more pronounced than in “Bullfrog,” also taken in Botswana in 1989, which depicts a huge, semi-submerged frog in the foreground, as grass and trees appear along the high horizon line. “Bullfrogs in the Kalahari Desert lead secret lives. For most of the year they hide underground, encased in a protective membrane, until the first heavy downpours bring them back to the surface,” reads the wall label. “By the edge of a rain-filled pool, I crept up to this male on hands and knees to create a portrait of seasonal rebirth, expressed in a face larger than life.”

The lengthy National Geographic assignment, Lanting adds, had him searching for images that were symbolic of broader themes, rather than just specific animals. He used a wide-angle lens to enlarge the frog—which he shuffled closer to each time it ducked under the water to wet its skin. “We ultimately had a pretty close encounter,” he says, noting also the billowing clouds atop the composition. “Everything says it’s the beginning of the season of plenty.”

Creeping up on animals can be a struggle at the beginning. “You can’t go to school for this kind of work. You have to learn by doing it,” Lanting says. “I made all the mistakes myself. I just got better and better at it.”

Asked about his safety shooting photographs in the wild, particularly after a lion mauling made the news recently, Lanting says it comes with the territory. “When you work with nature, there are uncertainties,” he says. “I believe that if you understand the situation, and you understand the animals, a lot of the myths about animals that are dangerous give way to very specific situations, where we can often gauge what is the right thing to do.”

That said, Lanting notes that one never quite knows how a hippopotamus (like the one gaping in “Hippo” in the show), an elephant, or a lion will react. “The core of a hippo threat display is a wide-open gape, a gesture sometimes mistaken for mere yawning. But what I saw through my lens could not be mistaken: His upright body position, perked ears, and bulging eyes were exclamation points on his emotion. I lingered only long enough to expose a few frames,” the wall label notes.

“We are not just operating from the safety of a Land Rover. Sometimes we are out there on foot or we are lying on our stomach. You’re never quite sure,” Lanting says. But he is quick to prescribe that humans shoulder the blame. “I don’t want to put a burden on animals and make them dangerous. If we are so smart, we should know better,” he says. “The key to this work is to pay respect to the animals, the places and the people you work with.”

Animals give signals, Eckstrom adds. “If you watch carefully, they’re letting you know how comfortable they are with your presence and your approach. If you read their language, then you either know that it’s OK to move in a little bit more, or back off,” she says. Elephants, for example, flap their ears, raise themselves up, and shuffle their front feet.

“Elephants are very expressive. Crocodiles are harder. They’re not as expressive,” Lanting says.

Beyond the potential for danger on their shoots, nature photographers also endure daily routines that evoke military training.

Videographer Chris Eckstrom and her husband photographer Frans Lanting hid inside a concrete bunker by a water hole in Namibia in 2009 to capture images of animals that came to drink there. (Frans Lanting/

“A lot of people say, ‘Your job is so much fun. It’s so glamorous.’ Sometimes I take the trouble to describe a typical day in the life, or something like that. And people go, ‘Ew! I couldn’t do that,’” Eckstrom says. One example, she says, is tracking chimpanzees, which requires being on location where the chimps went to bed the night before prior to their awakening.

“Sometimes that would be, get up at 3:30 in the morning. Hike out in blustery heat; 100 percent humidity; 30 to 40 pound packs on our backs. Hike, hike, hike. Get to the chimps. If we were lucky they were still there, and then following them on foot all day long, carrying a gallon of water,” she says. “And then having to go all day long until they go to bed at sunset. And then hiking back out in the dark and downloading things, and then back up at 3:30 in the morning.”

Still, there is something so addictive about photographing nature that it can make it difficult for the couple, based in California, to return home in between assignments. “It’s a real culture shock going from the natural world to human society,” Lanting says.

Lanting and Eckstrom met through a mutual friend when Eckstrom was a National Geographic staff writer. “The rest is history,” Lanting says.

Eckstrom notes that the two had been working alone, albeit doing the same kind of field work, for more than a decade prior to their collaborations. “We both had very different, specific ways we went about things. It took us a little time to merge that,” she says. “But basically, there’s so much to do that you have to divide and conquer, both with the research and the planning.”

“Now we are going into couple counseling mode,” Lanting says. “You have to share the same fundamental values and aspirations, of course, because otherwise you’re going off in different directions.” And there is too much work for just one person to do. “That is why quite a few of the great natural history filmmakers, especially in the earlier days, were husband-and-wife teams: Des and Jen Bartlett, Alan and Joan Root, and we could cite many more examples. Dieter and Mary Plage,” he says. “They were our role models. They were often people who lived on location for a long time, who could prop each other up, make up for each other’s weaknesses.”

Frans Lanting in Kenya in 2011. (Frans Lanting/

The National Geographic community also helps prop its own up.

“We are an eclectic bunch of photographers,” Lanting says. “We all stimulate each other. We all speak a common language, a visual language that National Geographic has refined over the years. It doesn’t really matter whether you aim your camera at an animal or a human being. There are common challenges and shared creative responses to that. We drive each other.”

The group isn’t necessarily in regular contact, but it comes together for an annual “gathering of the tribe” in Washington, D.C., Lanting says. A colleague once observed that there are more brain surgeons than National Geographic photographers. “Maybe it’s because there’s a need for more brain surgeons,” Lanting says. “I think he’s right. It’s a really unusual profession.”

As is often the case with National Geographic photography, the exhibition has both an aesthetic and an activist component to it. “The planet is precious. And it’s under a lot of pressure,” Lanting says. “I hope that it will help people gain a bit more of an understanding of what exists out there, and what goes into making the images. … I hope that maybe some people will be inspired to become a more active part of the solution.”

Eckstrom adds that it is important for people to realize that not all of the stories coming out of Africa are bad ones. “There are some really hopeful conservation stories embedded in this exhibition,” she says. “We hope people will pay attention to those and celebrate them.”

"National Geographic into Africa: The Photography of Frans Lanting" will be on view through the summer of 2016 at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

WilliWear Shop

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Recto - Divided in half vertically into black on white and white on black, the design features a full-length figure in relaxed posture evoking both a scarecrow and the unconstructed clothing style of the eponymous designer, Willi Smith. The body is straw-like; the hat is worn at a rakish angle; the arms, exaggerated in length, hang loosely; the legs are apart and bent slightly. As well as reversing the black and white scheme, the design presents the two figures in reverse position, head-to-toe.

Verso - The card is divided by a vertical line in the center. On the left, in the top half, WilliWearSHOP and the telephone number are imprinted in sans-serif style on one line. In the bottom half, the address is imprinted in an ornate script in a curved format. M&Co appears to the left of the line near the bottom edge of the card. The blank right half is reserved for addressee information.

William P. Goolman's 1874 School Desk Patent Model fragment

National Museum of American History
William P. Goodman from Kansas City, Missouri, received a U.S. patent for an improved desk. Patent no. 152224 was issued on June 23, 1874.

This is a reconstruction of the model from the existing parts. The desk has four slats of dark wood that are indented on each side. Today, these slats are connected by a museum foam board. Both the seat and desk can be folded. The desktop was designed to be supported at different angles and included an ink well strip and bookrack. When the desk was folded, items sitting on the desk would not roll off.

We are not aware of any additional information about the inventor/patentee.

William W. Wythes Cyclo-Ellipto-Pantograph Patent Model

National Museum of American History
This is the patent model for a drawing devices granted U.S. Patent 21,041 to William W. Wythes on July 27, 1858. “Be it known that I, WILLIAM WYTHES, of the city of Philadelphia and State of Pennsylvania, have invented a new and Improved Instrument for Drawing and Copying.” (U.S. Patent Application). The Smithsonian also owns a patent model by Wythes for a cloth-measuring machine (U.S. Patent 18313). (The original patent drawings and descriptions can be viewed at Google Patents.) Special about this patent model is that the inventor has engraved “Wm W Wythes, inventor” on the large brass disc on the model. Wythes was awarded a degree in medicine from Philadelphia College of Medicine in July 1851. He served as an assistant surgeon in the U.S. Volunteers, part of the Union forces, during the Civil War and was singled out in the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1861--1865, as having been a notable member of the Asylum General Hospital in Knoxville during the war. An oval shape, the ellipse is one of the four conic sections, the others being the circle, the parabola, and the hyperbola. Ellipses are important curves used in the mathematical sciences. For example, the planets follow elliptical orbits around the sun. Ellipses are required in surveying, engineering, architectural, and machine drawings for two main reasons. First, any circle viewed at an angle will appear to be an ellipse. Second, ellipses were common architectural elements, often used in ceilings, staircases, and windows, and needed to be rendered accurately in drawings. Several types of drawing devices that produce ellipses, called ellipsographs or elliptographs, were developed and patented in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The inventor claimed that the device could draw not only ellipses, but also epicycloids and spirals, thus the “cylco" in the title of the model. An epicycloid is the curve traced by a point on the circumference of a circle as it rolls about another circle. (See Schilling models 1982.0795.01, 1982.0795.02, 1982.0795.03, and 1982.0795.05 in the National Museum of American History collection.) As the name also implies, this device could be used as a pantograph, a mechanical devices used to copy line drawings. As the original drawing is traced, the pencil attached to the opposite end of the devices produces, through a series of linkages, a copy. The copy can also be scaled up or down in size. One common application of a pantograph (before the advent of computers) was to reduce the size of a drawing for use in minting money. For example, the original line drawings found on U.S. bills were full-size drawings. They were reduced and etched in order to be printed. Pantographs were also used, notably by Thomas Jefferson, for making a copy of a letter as the final draft of the original was being written out. The Wythes Cyclo-Ellipto-Pantograph consists of a wooden beam of 38 cm (15 in) long. At one end is a large vertical brass disc with gear teeth on the back. This gear turns a horizontal disc that is attached to a brass beam under the device. There are two movable pieces along the beam. One is the pivot point of the device, under the wooden handle. The other is the writing point below the horizontal brass disc placed along the beam. As the large disc at the end of the beam is turned, the gears cause a chain (similar to a miniature bicycle chain) to circulate along the length of the beam. As the long brass beam beneath the device turns, the smaller brass beam below the movable disc traces a similar shape. By adjusting the location of the pivot point and the small horizontal disc, various shapes are formed. However, it is not clear that all the claims of the inventor are warranted. It appears that only portions of curves or ellipses can be generated. The device was offered in the J. W. Queen “Illustrated Catalogue” of 1859. Resources: Announcement of the Philadelphia College of Medicine, for the Collegiate Year, 1854-5, (Philadelphia: King and Baird, 1854), 13. Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, 1861-1865, (Washington, D.C.: National Archives, Microcopy 262, 1959), 537.

Williams and Joslin Ellipsograph Patent Model

National Museum of American History
This brass device is a patent model for a “new and improved instrument for drawing curves and figures approximating in form ovals” (U.S. Patent 22910, February 8, 1859). An oval shape, the ellipse is one of the four conic sections, the others being the circle, the parabola, and the hyperbola. Ellipses are important curves used in the mathematical sciences. For example, the planets follow elliptical orbits around the sun. Ellipses are required in surveying, engineering, architectural, and machine drawings for two main reasons. First, any circle viewed at an angle will appear to be an ellipse. Second, ellipses were common architectural elements, often used in ceilings, staircases, and windows, and needed to be rendered accurately in drawings. For this reason, several drawing devices that produce ellipses, called ellipsographs or elliptographs, were developed and patented in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Developed by Thomas William and William Joslin of Fishersville, Connecticut, in the 1850s, this invention consists of a circular disc that freely moves along the slot in the base of the model as it rotates. The base of the steel arm is fixed while the point fits by means of a pin into one of several holes in the disc which are at various distances from the center. The shape and movement of the arm is reminiscent of an hour hand on a clock. Attached to the bottom of the disc is an armature that can be set in various positions and has an attachment for a pencil. As the disc is rotated by hand, the arm is constrained to move side to side. This in turn forces the disc to move in a perpendicular direction along the slot. Finally, the pencil arm below the disc will move in an elliptical path. By changing the connection point of the arm on the disc as well as the distance of pencil is from the center of the disc, ellipses of different sizes and eccentricities can be produced.

The Smithsonian also owns the 1852 patent model of a machine for making cordage designed by William Joslin (U.S. Patent 8825).

This model was transferred to the Smithsonian from the U.S. Patent Office in the early 20th century along with several other patent models.


U.S. Patents, Google Patents.

Wind Form

Smithsonian American Art Museum
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