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Lester Young Turns 100

Smithsonian Magazine

Though Lester Young was revered in his time as an artist of the highest rank, the 100th anniversary of his birth has not sparked much in the way of commemoration. No postage stamp; no parade in Woodville, Mississippi, where he was born on August 27, 1909; no statues in New Orleans, Kansas City or New York City —all places with a claim on the spellbinding Swing Era saxophonist known as Prez.

A shining exception is Columbia University's WKCR radio, where, for the past 40 years, jazz historian Phil Schaap has led marathon birthday tributes to Young, revisiting his landmark recordings from the 1930s and '40s with Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Benny Goodman and other leading lights, as well as Young's in-and-out performances in the troubled years before his death in 1959. Like Louis Armstrong before him, Prez was a pivotal figure; his lyrical, flowing style changed the terms of jazz improvisation and deeply influenced such musicians as Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Schaap's devotion has a personal element, too: Young; his wife, Mary, and their kids were friends and neighbors of the Schaap family in Queens, New York, in the late '50s. Though he was in grade school at the time, Schaap remembers Young's sweet voice and fun-loving presence, as well as moments of conversation among the grown-ups, such as the time his father, Walter, stood with Young in the front doorway discussing racial equality, and the jazzman remarked, "It never goes in the back door."

Like many of Young's phrases—musical and verbal—the comment was both deft and shrouded. He was known for speaking a private language, some of which has entered the American lexicon. The expression "that's cool" was probably coined by him, as were "bread" (for money), "You dig?" and such colorful sayings as "I feel a draft"—code for prejudice and hostility in the air. He also wore sunglasses in nightclubs, sported a crushed black porkpie hat and tilted his saxophone at a high angle "like a canoeist about to plunge his paddle into the water," as the New Yorker's Whitney Balliett put it. Rolling Stone later pronounced Prez "quite likely the hippest dude that ever lived."

Young's impact on the language of music was even greater. Before tenorman Coleman Hawkins led the emergence of the saxophone as a serious instrument in the 1920s, most sax players "habitually produced either a kind of rubbery belch or a low, mooing noise," wrote Young biographer Dave Gelly. Young came along right behind Hawkins, and electrified the jazz world with his dexterity and imagination.

"He redefined the instrument," says the tenor saxophonist and jazz scholar Loren Schoenberg, who is also executive director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem (a Smithsonian affiliate). His most fundamental change involved a subtle relaxation of jazz phrasing and rhythm. "A lot of lesser players depend on the friction of a spiky rhythm to make it seem as if it's 'hot,' " Schoenberg says. "Young found a way to play that had a more even rhythm, and yet he swung like crazy. This called for great ingenuity and great genius."

Young mastered the art of improvising beautiful melodies. Yet, like a great dancer, he never lost sight of the beat. (Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images)

Young mastered the art of improvising beautiful melodies, which he played with a velvety tone and an effortless, floating quality. Yet like a great dancer, he never lost sight of the beat. A bluesman at heart, he could swoop and moan and play with edge, but more typically, the sensation was one of "pulsating ease," as critic Nat Hentoff once described it. At slower tempos, he radiated a more wistful, bruised spirit. "In all of Lester Young's finest solos," Albert Murray writes in his classic study, Stomping the Blues, "there are overtones of unsentimental sadness that suggest he was never unmindful of human vulnerability."

Young was raised in and around New Orleans in a musical family that performed in minstrel shows and carnivals. His father, Willis Handy Young, was an accomplished music educator; he doted on Lester but also often belt-whipped the boy, prompting him to run away 10 or 12 times, according to his younger brother Lee. The family moved to Minneapolis in 1919 and performed across the American heartland. At a stop in Harlan, Kentucky, the Youngs came close to being lynched; apparently, the audience had been expecting a white band. In 1927, at age 18, Lester ran away for good rather than face the indignities of a planned tour of Texas and the Deep South. He latched on with territory bands (dance bands that would travel a given region) such as Walter Page's Blue Devils, several of whose stars—including bassist Page, singer Jimmy Rushing, drummer Jo Jones and pianist Count Basie—would later form the nucleus of Basie's popular, ultra-swinging orchestra. The novelist and jazz writer Ralph Ellison remembered hearing Young jamming in an Oklahoma City shoeshine parlor with members of the Blue Devils as early as 1929, "his head thrown back, his horn even then outthrust."

Young's prowess was well known by 1934, when he first joined the Basie band in Kansas City; by the time he left, in 1940, he had established himself as one of the top stars in jazz. Most of Young's greatest records date from this period and the early '40s, when he teamed up with Holiday, Goodman, Charlie Christian, Nat King Cole and a number of excellent small groups composed mainly of Basie-ites. Young later said that his favorite solo from the Basie years came on a sprightly tune called Taxi War Dance. "The entire solo is 32 bars long; it takes exactly 35 seconds," writes Gelly, "and it's a masterpiece to stand alongside Armstrong's West End Blues and Parker's Ko-Ko. No one else could have done it because no else's mind worked that way."

Watch this video in the original article

By all accounts, Young was a painfully shy and sensitive loner who hated conflict of any kind. He also had a self-destructive streak and blithely ignored his health. "Prez always had a bottle of liquor in his pocket," said pianist Jimmy Rowles.

Young was sliding into a long decline by his early 30s, probably accelerated by his hellish Army experience. He was court-martialed in early 1945 for marijuana possession, then confined for nearly a year in disciplinary barracks, an experience he called "one mad nightmare." He bounced back to record some of his most successful records and tour with the all-star Jazz at the Philharmonic bands, but he was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown in 1955. Soon after returning from an engagement in Paris, Young died in the Alvin Hotel in Manhattan on March 15, 1959, just months before his old friend and musical soulmate Billie Holiday.

He remains a powerful influence on the music. Wayne Shorter, Lee Konitz, Joe Lovano and Mark Turner—an elite list of contemporary saxophonists—have all professed deep admiration for Young, much as their predecessors did.

The late pianist John Lewis played in Young's band in the early '50s at about the time Lewis was forming the Modern Jazz Quartet. A kindred spirit, he said he regarded Young as "a living, walking poet" whose wounds in life had never healed. "Lester is an extremely gentle, kind, considerate person," he told Hentoff in 1956 or '57. "He's always concerned about the underdog. He always wants to help somebody. The way he seems to see being is: 'Here we are. Let's have a nice time.' "

Happy birthday, Prez.

America's Monumental Dinosaur Site

Smithsonian Magazine

As you approach Dinosaur National Monument—America’s most celebrated dinosaur graveyard—you can’t miss all the prehistoric beasts dotting the roadside. To the east, tail-dragging, misshapen dinosaur statues that would make a paleontologist cringe menace the small town of Dinosaur, Colorado. To the west, monsters stalk Highway 40 from downtown Vernal, Utah to the entrance of the park. A miniature “Brontosaurus” stands behind a chain link fence at a Sinclair gas station, and a lumpy Diplodocus with a goofy smile greets visitors turning off the highway.

Actual dinosaurs were discovered here a century ago. Starting in 1909, fossil hound Earl Douglass found fantastic remains of gigantic dinosaurs, and his timing was perfect. The great natural history museums of the East—in New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Washington, D.C.—were competing to acquire the biggest and best dinosaur specimens in a great Jurassic dinosaur rush. Douglass uncovered fossils of Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, Barosaurus, Allosaurus, Ceratosaurus, Stegosaurus and more, and his finds helped fill collections.

Unlike many other bone hunters, though, Douglass did not excavate all the fossils he could. In a letter to Charles Doolittle Walcott, then the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, he wrote: “I hope that the Government, for the benefit of science and the people, will uncover a large area, leave the bones and skeletons in relief and house them. It would make one of the most astounding and instructive sights imaginable.” 

He got his wish. In 1915, Douglass’ field area was turned into a national monument. Its highlight has been a particularly rich deposit of dinosaur bones, known simply as the quarry wall, that was protected by an intricate glass building since 1958. Millions of visitors watched paleontologists pick away at the 150-million-year-old rock face to expose the full extent of the mass grave. But in 2006, the structure was judged unstable and the area was closed. This past fall, a new observation center was opened to the public, and visitors can now once again see the nation’s most productive Jurassic park.

But the fossil riches of Dinosaur National Monument extend beyond the quarry wall, and paleontologists continue to make new discoveries that Douglass and his contemporaries could only have imagined. Last summer I hiked out to the field sites and visited some of the labs where the monument’s prehistory is being revealed.

Randall Irmis, the Natural History Museum of Utah’s paleontology curator, was leading a team studying a curved cross-section of rock striped with reds, browns and yellows called the Racetrack. I joined them for a week and a half to prospect for fossils, watching out for rattlesnakes and picking itchy cheatgrass out of my socks as I followed the fossil hunters along the steep exposures. The rock is about 200 million to 220 million years old, a period when the dinosaur dynasty was on the rise.

No one knew what might be in these rocks; this was the first systematic survey. The team found numerous burrows of small invertebrates that lived in sediments of ancient lakes, some vertebrate bones and, most intriguingly, some distinctive three-toed tracks that could only have been made by dinosaurs. The shapes and claw impressions were sure signs that small predatory dinosaurs once roamed the area.

Traces of prehistoric life also abound in a roughly 185-million-year-old layer of pockmarked sandstone, including footprints left by some of our own distant cousins. On one cloudy morning, park paleontologist Dan Chure, paleontologist George Engelmann of the University of Nebraska, Omaha and I hopped into an SUV and bounced up a pair of runnels towards a wide slab of tilted rock covered in nickel-size divots. At midday it would look like just another bit of stone on the wall of a small, shrub-filled gorge, but as the clouds burned off and the angled light of the rising sun shone on it, more than 300 small, rounded footprints stood out in relief against their sandstone bed. A few still have the scratches of tiny prehistoric claws. Chure’s discovery of the site in 2009 caused the paleontologist to rethink what might be found in the Early Jurassic rock of the monument and what the fossils might look like. After scrambling up the slab to point out the trackways, Chure stood on the footprints of his ancient kin and said: “When we saw this, we said ‘Yeah, we have to expand our search image a bit.’”

Image by Brian Switek. The fossil riches of Dinosaur National Monument extend beyond the quarry wall, and paleontologists continue to make new discoveries that fossil hound Earl Douglass and his contemporaries could only have imagined. (original image)

Image by Tim Fitzharris / Minden Pictures / Corbis. Actual dinosaurs were discovered at Dinosaur National Monument a century ago. Starting in 1909, Douglass found fantastic remains of gigantic dinosaurs. (original image)

Image by Brian Switek. A miniature "Brontosaurus" stands behind a chain link fence at a Sinclair gas station, and a lumpy Diplodocus, shown here, with a goofy smile greets visitors turning off the highway. (original image)

Image by Brian Switek. Paleontologist Dan Chure. (original image)

Image by Louie Psihoyos / Corbis. Researchers excavating at Dinosaur National Monument. (original image)

The tracks were most likely made by therapsids, archaic forerunners of mammals. The creatures were covered with fur and had teeth in a variety of different shapes, characteristics that set therapsids apart from reptiles. The creatures shuffled up and down massive sand dunes during a time when the area looked like the Gobi Desert. The fact that so many small creatures left tracks hints at the ancient ecology—they could not have survived in a totally dry desert. “There’s a good possibility there was some kind of water nearby” in the form of a lake or other oasis, Engelmann said. Since the slab is far too large to extract, Chure and Engelmann plan to pour latex over the rock and make a peel of all the tiny footprints to study how the hairy little critters moved around.

During the time that therapsids were skittering over ancient dunes, a group of more than 20 predatory theropod dinosaurs died during a drought. If they had held out a little longer they might have survived, for water soon covered their bodies, and their carcasses become preserved in a temporary pond. Three years ago, on the last day of the summer field season, Chure and Engelmann found the theropod bones just outside the park boundary and, with their Brigham Young University (BYU) colleague Brooks Britt, collected as many bits and pieces as possible.

I saw the bones laid out on the dusty laboratory tables of BYU’s Museum of Paleontology. The whine of air-powered tools and the sound of rock being scraped from bone filled dusty workspace. The startlingly white bones looked as if they had come from a recently deceased animal, but a closer look guided by Chure and Engelmann left no doubt that these were the petrified remains of juvenile dinosaurs. Bits of skull set with recurved teeth, hollow bones, and even a prehistoric wishbone or two were clues that a group of slender predatory dinosaurs had died and gone to pieces in the same place. “You can count the number of fossil vertebrates from [early Jurassic] deposits on one hand, and not all of that hand,” Chure said. “This is the biggest Early Jurassic theropod collection in the Western Hemisphere, possibly the world.” Britt chimed in: “It’s a gold mine!”

This dinosaur species still lacks a name, though Britt, Chure and Engelmann believe it is closely related to a more recent theropod called Coelophysis. These gracile dinosaurs had narrow, triangular heads, long necks and lightly built bodies that stretched about 10 feet long. Based on how often they are found together, Coelophysis likely traveled in groups. No complete, articulated skeletons of the new species have been found, but the state of their bones suggests how they died. Given the arid habitat and the fact the juvenile animals often die in droughts today, the working hypothesis is that the dinosaurs died of thirst and their bodies were preserved when water covered their bones. Their bodies sat in a temporary pool for long enough that the skeletons fell apart. The bones are well preserved, hinting that the dinosaurs died shortly before the return of the rains they so desperately needed.

Tucked away in other drawers at the BYU lab are four skulls, ranging from nearly complete to little more than a set of dinosaur “dentures,” or snout and teeth, from a 104-million-year-old sauropod dinosaur recently discovered at the monument. Named Abydosaurus mcintoshi, this dinosaur is helping fill in a gap in dinosaur history that has long frustrated paleontologists. For many years it seemed that the great long-necked sauropods went into a decline in North America about 145 million years ago, but Abydosaurus shows that these dinosaurs were still thriving in North America for much longer. And there is more left in the rock. With some carefully placed explosives, Chure and Britt hope to clear off an even larger exposure of the bonebed where Abydosaurus rests.

I'm glad the outdated, crumbling dinosaurs still stand along the road outside the park. The poor creatures are a baseline for dinosaurs as we used to know them—a historical remnant that shows us just how dramatically our understanding of these magnificent creatures has changed. Dinosaurs were not stupid, drab creatures destined for extinction (or to advertise hotel swimming pools). They were fantastic, vibrant animals whose avian descendants remain among us today. Through the beautiful swaths of geologic time exposed at Dinosaur National Monument, preserved thanks to Douglass' dream, we can gain a few glimpses into just how magnificent the Age of Dinosaurs truly was.

What Does It Mean to Be American Muslim?

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

Speaking from a tented stage to a live audience, Nazea Khan related an interaction she had with her friends:

“The other day, I was buying some supplies for the Fourth of July, and some of my friends were like, ‘Yo, Nazea, why are you buying stuff for a party for America, for a country that doesn’t love you?’”

Without pausing, she told them they were wrong.

“There are some people in this country who don’t love me, but I am who I am because America has given me the opportunities that I have today, and I am a very proud, unapologetic, Muslim American, Bengali teen—and that’s just who I am.”

Nazea finished her story with a rueful laugh. As spectators clapped loudly, a woman shouted, “Perfect. Perfect.”

Despite the humidity and extreme heat, visitors had crowded On the Move’s Story Circle stage at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The panel, “Generations on the Move: What Does It Mean to be American Muslim?” had garnered one of the program’s largest audiences. While there, I glanced at some visitors in the front row. The strains of the current political climate traced their faces like a map. A stack of tote bags sat nearby, stamped with the logo of the Muslim Community Center (MCC).

“Don’t forget to grab one after,” urged president Usman Sarwar.

As the panelists explained, MCC offers a unique space for them to practice their faith in Silver Spring, Maryland. Consisting of one of the oldest mosques in the Washington, D.C., area, the center extends a variety of services, including medical care, youth group, and interfaith meetings. As a youth organizer for the Muslim Youth Organization, Nazea valued the opportunity to reach out to other teens in a similar position as herself. She smiled easily as she spoke, describing her role at MCC with a light, affable demeanor.

For Sanjana Quasem, an organizer for the Young Adults and Professionals Program, there are no set markers that delineate between her American and Muslim identities. These angles reflect off each other, creating a kaleidoscope of memory and feeling.

As she explained, her words quick and firm, “I’m an American that just happens to be Muslim.”

Yet, the rise of inflammatory political rhetoric against Islam has left Sanjana and others struggling to find their footing in a sometimes hostile sphere. Recently, the Southern Poverty Law Center released its annual census of extremist organizations, which stated that anti-Muslim hate groups nearly tripled in 2016.

The dramatic surge in acts of violence against Muslims continues to leave significant wounds upon the broader community. According to CNN, in early 2017, four mosques across the country were burned down within weeks of each other. In May, a man hurled anti-Muslim insults at two young women on a commuter train in Portland, Oregon; when three men intervened to help the girls, two of them were fatally stabbed.

In a moment of vulnerability, Sanjana said, “You get used to the trauma.” She referenced the heavy weight of the political environment, as well as the unavoidable internalization of both fear and anxiety in her daily life.

American Muslim panel at the 2017 Folklife Festival
(L-R) Sabir Rahman, Sanjana Quasem, Nazea Khan, Abdiaziz Ahmed, and Usman Sarwar at the 2017 Folklife Festival.
Video still by Helen Lehrer

Throughout the panel, I witnessed the participants measure each word carefully. We were in a country that had recently instituted a travel ban, that had considered the implementation of a Muslim registry, and seen an influx of anti-Muslim hate crimes. Although the participants acknowledged the growing Islamophobia in the United States, they had tried not to let these realities dictate the conversation.

As they shared their perspectives, they balanced their external struggles with their personal triumphs. Positive and upbeat, Nazea stressed the affirming aspects of her identity, as did Aziz Ahmed, who said that the United States bolstered his reclamation of self as a “proud Muslim.” Similarly, Sanjana asserted that the difficulties she experienced only cemented the importance of Islam in her life.

After the panel ended, I walked across the National Mall with Sanjana, Nazea, and Aziz as they candidly conversed about the flawed reasoning that guides much of the criticism against Islam. One woman asked Nazea why she continued to wear the hijab when it upset others in public—she believed Nazea could “blend in” if she simply took it off. Two other visitors approached Aziz, a soft-spoken college freshman, and inquired about the Islamic oppression of women. Sanjana rolled her eyes.  

Although these questions may appear naive, they are rooted in racialized misconceptions of Muslim practice. Word choice matters. When they encourage Muslim women to take off their hijabs to “fit in,” they place the burden of assimilation on perceived “outsiders.” In this moment, they do not criticize those who hurl slurs and insults. They do not criticize those who actively perpetuate violence—including arson, assault, and murder—against a community solely on the basis of their religion. By asking young girls to take off their hijabs, they imply that head coverings, rather than racist attitudes, incite chaos. 

“It’s really frustrating, especially in a society where we talk so much about freedom of choice, that it’s difficult for people to understand that this—” Sanjana paused and touched her yellow hijab, “—can be a choice.” She passionately described the ways in which the stereotypical portrayals of Muslim women frustrated her. Rather than focus on her contributions to the community, many people “just see the hijab.” As she spoke, she leaned forward in her chair, parsing her thoughts quickly. “It’s not the oppression of religion, it’s the oppression that other folks are putting upon me in seeing the hijab.”

During the Q&A segment of the panel, it became clear that some of us live lives markedly separate from the realities of American intervention and suppression. Many of us exist easily, freely, without finding our actions constantly politicized, dissected, scrutinized. Each panelist discussed the pressure to speak not just for themselves, but for a whole group.

“We have to be perfect in everything that we say,” Aziz said. “We have to be the spokespeople for 1.6 billion people, which is sometimes very hard to do.”

During our interview, they laughed self-deprecatingly at the idea that they have all the answers to Islam.

“We’re not well-versed in every single matter pertaining to our religion, but we can tell you why we are Muslims and why we do what we do,” Aziz clarified.

While they do not want to be reduced to their religion, they do redefine their faith on their own terms—sidestepping the negative, highly prescriptive constructions of Islam that have flooded news outlets and pop culture. In this way, the expectation to act as a “spokesperson” for Islam has transformed into what Nazea calls “a burden and an opportunity.” Their efforts to better understand their faith and to contextualize its presence in their daily lives fortifies their belief.

“In some weird way, it’s forced me to get more in touch with my religion and learn about it and actually value it more,” Sanjana said.

American Muslim panel at the 2017 Folklife Festival
Sanjana Quasem and Nazea Khan at the 2017 Folklife Festival.
Video still by Helen Lehrer

Despite its difficulties, they emphasized that they want people to ask questions rather than harbor misconceptions. When responding to the two visitors, Aziz explained that religion and culture are two different spheres. Cultural misogyny can shape the way a person interprets a specific religion, but that doesn’t mean that the religion itself is inherently misogynistic.

After the enactment of President Trump’s travel ban, Sabir Rahman, an older panelist who emigrated from Pakistan in his mid-twenties, noted that the swell of support from other Americans helped mitigate the effect of hateful reactions. He welcomed burgeoning friendships with advocates and new allies. If the devastating consequences of the September 11 attacks proved isolating, the aftermath of the travel ban appeared to be a bittersweet synthesis. While Sabir had certainly felt the impact of mounting political antagonism, he had also experienced a heightened sense of kinship. For Sabir, he palpably felt the truth behind the words, “We are with you.” 

According to Usman, over a thousand people of other faiths have visited MCC since January. He repeatedly highlighted the ways in which community backing had positively shaped the environment of the center.

“They want to know who we are. They want to support us. We’ve had flowers sent to us. We’ve had cards from churches sent to us.” Visibly touched, Usman added, “This time we have so much support and, I want to emphasize, it means the world to us.”

Before the program ended, he thanked the Festival for providing a platform for American Muslims to speak for themselves. As he noted, “The best thing is to break bread and have dialogue.”

Michelle Mehrtens is a documentary production intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied English and history. Her work at the Center is part of the Katzenberger Foundation Art History Internship program.

What Does It Feel Like to Be Invisible?

Smithsonian Magazine

What would it feel like to be, in some sense, a brain without a body? Now a handful of people in Sweden can tell you.

These invisible people didn’t actually disappear. No magic capes, evil rings or cloaking devices were involved, and other people could still see them. But they believed to an extent that their bodies had vanished, thanks to an elaborate psychological trick. And it seems that losing your body may have a positive side effect. “The experience of having an invisible body seems to reduce stress, specifically the stress we feel when standing in front of strangers,” says Arvid Guterstam, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Karolinska Institutet, whose team describes the finding this week in Scientific Reports.

That people can be fooled this way isn’t entirely surprising. Though powerful, the brain has its limits, and piecing together the information gathered by the senses requires some guesswork and filling in blanks. That means even our day-to-day experience of reality can be thought of as a trick of the mind. “Almost everything we perceive is an illusion based on partial information,” says Susana Martinez-Conde, a neuroscientist at SUNY Downstate Medical Center. “Most of the time the brain does a pretty good job, but sometimes it really gets it wrong.”

Investigating why the brain sometimes falters can reveal how it gets things right the rest of the time. Consider the classic illusion of the rubber hand: Stroke a person's hand while it's hidden under a table and, at the same time, stroke a prosthetic hand in plain sight. The hand’s owner will begin to think of the prosthetic as part of their body. Scans conducted during this illusion have highlighted the brain regions involved in the confusion, helping scientists identify neurons whose job it is to combine data from different senses.

Extraordinary circumstances outside of the laboratory can also distort our relationships with our bodies. Amputees talk about phantom limbs extending from the stumps where their arms or legs used to be. And damage to the spine has been known to give rise to the sensation of a second body projecting out at an angle from the neck, hovering in empty space.

Inspired by these cases of ghostly flesh, the new illusion started with virtual reality goggles. Bespectacled volunteers who were completely intact looked down and saw not their bellies and legs but only empty space—a live feed recorded by a nearby camera pointed at the floor. That wouldn’t be much of a trick on its own. But Guterstam then stroked each volunteer’s stomach with an unseen paintbrush while waving a second brush under the camera, where it could be seen dancing alone. If the pair of brushes moved in the same patterns at the same time, things got strange.

Faced with contradictory information—the feel of the bristles against their torsos clashing with the sight of a brush touching nothing—many people experienced the uncanny sensation that their body had become transparent. This spell proved powerful. When those who succumbed to it watched a knife being thrust through the empty space, their skin reacted. Its electrical conductance jumped, which the researchers interpreted as a stress reaction to this threat against the invisible self. Volunteers who saw a knife but did not experience the invisibility illusion had a much smaller reaction.

“It’s interesting that they can turn the body off, and the self seems to continue,” says Patrick Haggard of the University College London Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience. “This suggests our sense of self might be less dependent on the material body than has been previously proposed.”

Study co-author Zakaryah Abdulkarim (middle) uses a paintbrush to convince someone of their invisibility. (Staffan Larsson)

Hoping to put this illusion to good use, the researchers tried one last experiment. Goggled volunteers looked up from the empty space to the surprising sight of a crowd of people staring at them—not an actual audience there in the room, but a convincing image of a virtual crowd. This wasn’t very pleasant, as reported in surveys and indicated by increases in heart rate. But the participants seemed to experience a little less stress, on average, if under the influence of the invisibility illusion.

“It’s not a dramatic difference, but it’s a difference that can’t be explained by chance,” says Guterstam.

Virtual reality might thus be a tool for treating social anxiety, an intense fear of social situations accompanied by physical symptoms such as a pounding heart, sweating and shaking. A common treatment for those suffering from the disorder is cognitive behavioral therapy, in which someone is exposed to increasingly difficult social situations. Being able to turn invisible, at least in one’s own mind, could help people to cope with this process, the study authors suggest.

Though the preliminary data is intriguing, the illusion is still a long way from therapeutic use, says Lorimer Moseley, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Sansom Institute for Health Research at the University of South Australia. He has already challenged the reported benefits of other illusions, including the ability of the rubber hand trick to ease the pain that amputees often feel in their phantom limbs. Moseley is eager to put this new trick to the test. “It’s discoveries like these that plant a seed in the minds of people like me,” he says.

Ultimately, Guterstam hopes to tackle a more philosophical concern: how being invisible influences moral decisions. It’s a favorite topic of fiction writers: H.G. Wells’ invisible man invents an especially concealing paint only to become a thief and a terrorist. Comic book superheroes, on the other hand, often use their unusual gift to make the world a better place. And with the proliferation of cloaking materials being investigated in labs worldwide, fact may be catching up to fiction, which raises some ethical quandaries. “Does gaining the power of invisibility corrupt human moral nature? We have a new tool to answer this question,” Guterstam says.

An Editor's Note

Smithsonian Magazine

This month the University of Missouri Press is publishing A Love Affair with Life & Smithsonian by Edward K. Thompson, the founding editor of this magazine. The match is fitting, since the university is the home of a distinguished journalism school, and the author is a legendary figure in the history of American magazines.

What follows is hardly an objective review of Thompson's professional autobiography, since I worked under him briefly at the old weekly Life — like most young reporters, regarding him with a combination of admiration and sheer terror. Later he would hire me at Smithsonian. Bias aside, it seems appropriate to offer some comment here for readers who are interested in how this magazine was born, for young people who aspire to careers in journalism and, indeed, for anyone who would like to view some key events of the past seven decades through a perceptive and uniquely positioned lens.

Born in 1907 in St. Thomas, North Dakota (pop. 500), Thompson grew up listening to the howls of wolves outside of town and sometimes walking to school in weather that could hit 52 below zero. At the age of 13, after a trip through Yellowstone Park, he sold his first piece of professional work, a picture of a bear eating garbage, to Boy's Life for the handsome sum of $1 — and never looked back. After editing the student newspaper at the University of North Dakota, where he locked horns with the local Klavern of the Ku Klux Klan, he held a succession of newspaper jobs at a time when practitioners of that trade were more raffish, more freewheeling and maybe more fun, than in the years since.

At the weekly Foster County Independent he honed his skills by editing articles on such events as a "birthday lunch for someone's mother, a lawn party for the American Legionnaire children, a regular meeting of a women's lodge and an auction." Somehow he remained in management's good graces even after having a dustup with the county judge (when Thompson printed what the judge actually said about the state's legal red tape, the judge exploded: "You put dat in da paper?") and wrecking the boss' car by running into a cow.

At the daily Fargo Forum, Thompson's news sources were hotel clerks, cops, waitresses, night nurses and undertakers. There he learned to equivocate when the top editor would call in from a late, wet party to propose a story that he'd be appalled to see in print the morning after.

At age 21, Thompson moved on to the big time — the Pulitzer Prize-winning Milwaukee Journal. There his colleagues were news editor "Scoop" Arnold, "Stuffy" Walters (whose copy desk was a "dangerous place") and "Cap" Manly, a star reporter who sang Gilbert and Sullivan and slugged cops when he got drunk. The fiction editor (newspapers published short stories in those days) and the political cartoonist hated each other so much that they "drew each other's faces on villains and dogs." The photographers had burn scars on their arms from the flash powder they used. When the Depression hit, the pay envelope was apt to be filled with nickels, dimes and quarters collected by the Journal's newsboys. Even so, after sleeping in a nearby flophouse when he had to stay handy to the paper, Thompson was admonished by the news editor: "You work for the Milwaukee Journal . . . no matter what you pay, never again claim less than $5 a night."

Thompson recognized that the 35mm camera and candid photography were changing the face of journalism, and soon won a reputation for his picture layouts at the Journal. In 1937 he was hired by Henry Luce's new picture magazine, Life. With his instinct for the telling photograph and a common touch perhaps nurtured by his North Dakota upbringing (to say nothing of an admittedly large ego and a feeling for how to play corporate politics both competitively and honorably), he prospered there. In 1946, when someone else beat him in a contest to be Life's top editor, he told Luce: "You have the wrong man." He became the right man a few years later, and the Life that many of us remember is to a great degree the Life that Thompson made-the Life of great news photographs, of the light-hearted "Speaking of Pictures," of such series as "The World We Live In" and "The World's Great Religions," of the picture essays like W. Eugene Smith's "Country Doctor."

As managing editor he was notorious for mumbling so incomprehensibly that after layout sessions his editors would caucus to try to figure out what he had said. (It was widely believed that he mumbled on purpose-although I would later discover that he did not mind in the least being asked to repeat himself.) And his attempts to play the role of curmudgeon were usually derailed by his basic humanity.

At Life, in those days when television was not yet a force, anything was possible. Whether it was the McCarthy hearings or the Hiss trials or the launching of the first Americans into space, Life, and Thompson, were there. To cover major events like political conventions, Thompson deployed photographers by the dozen to shoot pictures by the thousands. To beat the competition, he sent reporters waving hundred-dollar bills to buy photographs from the survivors of an airplane crash in the Pacific. What he liked best was tearing up an issue at the last minute and starting again from scratch. A colleague wrote: "Thompson would brighten perceptibly when there was any prospect of a late-breaking story turning a long day's work into a longer night's."

It was customary for Life to publish the memoirs of important figures, and it fell to Thompson to do the requisite celebrity hand-holding. He recounts his experiences briskly but with relish. The Duke of Windsor seemed to believe that he had composed his ghost-written memoirs himself, although when he wrote captions for the illustrations in the article, he "performed almost competently." Winston Churchill, who could take justifiable pride in his prose, responded amiably to being edited, although his table manners when eating caviar left something to be desired.

No athlete, Thompson found himself puffing along with Harry Truman on one of his brisk morning walks and was told that if he kept up the regimen he'd live to be 100. (He's working on it-Thompson is 88 today.)

Thompson worked closely with Douglas MacArthur on his memoirs, and writes: "If you have genuine MacArthur prose, you find that purple becomes the color of choice." Yet Thompson seems to have had a real affection for the general, who by then was frail and trembling with palsy. When they parted for the last time, MacArthur walked him to the door and said: "I've looked that old devil, Death, in the eye a hundred times. But this time I think he's got me."

In 1952 Life published The Old Man and the Sea, thus beginning a not entirely comfortable relationship with Ernest Hemingway. When Alfred Eisenstaedt went to Cuba to photograph him, Hemingway wanted to pose in swimming trunks. "My body," he said. "Women love my body." On a subsequent assignment to write a 4,000-word piece on bullfighting, Hemingway turned in monstrous expense accounts — his custom was to walk into a bar and buy drinks for the house. When he finally delivered his manuscript, it came in at a staggering 108,746 words (Hemingway counted them himself). Trying to turn it into something manageable, Life's editors had to cope with the author as prima donna. Thompson observes: "He was fiercer in defense of doubtful material than when he knew they were dealing with his best."

The most revealing portrait in the book is of Thompson's inscrutable, stubborn, often brilliant boss, Henry Luce. He possessed "an almost painful integrity and pride in his work," Thompson writes. "And when he did have bad ideas, one soon learned — by trial and error — which ones he could be talked out of and which could be quietly ignored and left to collapse of their own weight."

Luce lived in a world of his own. In Rome while his wife, Clare Boothe Luce, was Ambassador to Italy, he had his own office in a building where there was a charge for using the elevator. Since Luce never thought to carry change, "Time Inc. furnished the elevator operator with lira and several portraits of Harry from different angles so that the fees would be paid on his behalf." When his flight was delayed on a trip to Europe, an exasperated Luce ordered an assistant to "call Juan Trippe [who then ran Pan Am] and tell him to get his goddamned plane off the ground." Irritated by the fact that his executives had to pay such high taxes, Luce came up with a cockamamy scheme for providing them such perks as household servants or vacations aboard a corporate yacht. "Those in the highest salary brackets would get two full-time servants . . . and so on down to one cleaning woman once or twice a week." The idea collapsed when Luce learned that perks were taxable too.

Nevertheless, Thompson admired Luce for his seriousness of purpose, his business acumen, and his willingness to gamble on his own ideas and those of his editors. When he was offered the top job at Life, Thompson was asked by colleagues how he could abide the thought of working for someone who wasn't a regular guy. He concluded: "He was enough of a regular guy for me."

In 1970, having retired from Time Inc., Thompson became the founding editor and publisher of Smithsonian. He says he "invented" it. In fact, he did. S. Dillon Ripley, then Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, wanted a popular magazine that would extend the Institution's reach, and he left it to Thompson to carry out the mission. In the book, his stories about the early days of Smithsonian — the shaky finances, the uncertain backing of the Board of Regents, the surprising (although not to him) early success — may be familiar to our regular readers. A monthly magazine, with its stately pace, is less productive of last-minute crises and high drama than a newsweekly. But the fact is that Thompson ran this magazine for the first decade of its life, and although there have been changes — he probably does not approve of all of them — it bears his stamp today.

If there's a message in Ed Thompson's book, it comes not at the end but in the very first sentence. "To those all-out converts to computerized journalism who declaim that 'print is dead,' I say, 'Not so fast.'"

By Don Moser

Model of a Riemann Surface by Richard P. Baker, Baker #410W

National Museum of American History
This geometric model was constructed by Richard P. Baker in about 1930 when he was Associate Professor of Mathematics at the University of Iowa. Baker believed that models were essential for the teaching of many parts of mathematics and physics, and over one hundred of his models are in the museum collections. The mark 410 w is inscribed on an edge of the wooden base of this model and the typed part of a paper tag on the base reads: No. 410w (/) Riemann surface : (/) w2 = z5 - z (/) 2 models. The 2 models refers to this model and model No. 410z (211257.073) that are associated with the same equation. Both models are listed on page 17 of Baker’s 1931 catalog of models as w2 = z5 - z under the heading Riemann Surfaces. This means that both models represent a Riemann surface consisting of pairs of complex numbers, (z,w), for which w2 = z5 - z. Complex numbers are of the form x + yi for x and y real numbers and i the square root of –1. A complex plane is like the usual real Cartesian plane but with the horizontal axis representing the real part of the number and the vertical axis representing the imaginary part of the number. Riemann surfaces are named after the 19th-century German mathematician Bernhard Riemann. Baker explains in his catalog that the w after the number of this model indicates that the metal disks above the wooden base represent copies of a disk in the complex w-plane. These disks are called the sheets of the model. The painted disk on the wooden base of the model represents a disk in the complex z-plane with the point z = 0 at its center. The disk is divided into twelve sectors, pie-piece-shaped parts of a circle centered at 0, each of which has a central angle of 30 degrees. There are eight values of w for which the equation w2 = z5 - z is satisfied by only four values of z. These eight points all lie on a circle centered at w =0 with radius slightly less than 3/4 (the exact value is 2 divided by the 8th root of 55). Two points have real values, two have purely imaginary values, and the remaining four lie on the circle, half way between a real and a purely imaginary point. These eight points on the w-plane are called branch points of the model and for all other points on the w-plane the equation w2 = z5 - z is satisfied by five distinct values of z, each of which produces a different pair on the Riemann surface (if w = 0, the five distinct pairs on the Riemann surface are the origin and the points (0,±1) and (0,±i).). Thus there are five sheets representing the complex w-plane and together they represent part of what is called a branched cover of the complex w-plane. The color of a region on a sheet is chosen with the aim of indicating a sector or sectors on the base into which it is mapped. On all but the middle sheet the same pattern appears, a curve that looks like an ellipse and two curves that look like apples. Each half of the outer curve maps onto the same portion of the outermost of the five circles appearing on the base, while each of the apple-like curves maps onto the same portion of the next smaller circle on the base. In addition, each of the eight branch points lies inside one of the eight apple-like curves. The middle sheet, which is much more complicated, has five wavy closed curves that map onto various portions of the five circles on the base. The line segments that appear on all five sheets are mapped to radii or diameters on the base. On upper sheet the two dark points mark the approximate locations of two of the branch points of the model. The vertical surfaces between the two sheets are not part of the Riemann surface but call attention to what are called branch cuts of the model, i.e., curves on a sheet that produce movement to another sheet. This movement occurs when meeting a branch cut while following a path of the inputs of w values into the equation. While the defining equation determines the branch points, the branch cuts are not fixed by the equation but, normally, each branch cut goes through two of the surface’s branch points or runs out to infinity. In this model all of the branch cuts run out to infinity and are represented by the horizontal edges of the vertical surfaces. In this model the movement is always between the middle sheet and one of the other four sheets.

Mooney Mite

National Air and Space Museum
Single engine, single seat, low wing, red and white with black stripes, red wingtips, engine not original.

Mooney Mite N3199K is serial number one of the fast and efficient line of private aircraft designed by Albert Mooney and Charles Yankey. Mooney Aircraft Corporation produced more than 365 Mites between 1947 and 1955 and followed them with the larger M.20 series. Current Mooney aircraft still sport the trademark forward-swept vertical fin of the original Mite.

The compact, single-place, low-wing monoplane boasted retractable landing gear and wing flaps, new amenities for personal planes of that era. Mooney's patented "Safe-Trim" system featured a moveable horizontal stabilizer interconnected to the flaps for automatic nose-attitude trim. After replacing the original 25 hp Crosley Cobra engine with a Continental or Lycoming, Mites became lively record-setters, cruising at a brisk 200 km/h (125 mph).

The Mooney M-18-C Mite, N3199K, is the first aircraft of the series to be built and it is the forerunner of the Mooney private and corporate airplane business. The design goal was to provide a fast and economical means of personal transportation for the businessman and the private pilot.

Charles G. Yankey and Al Mooney, formerly of the Culver Aircraft Company, formed the Mooney Aircraft Company in Wichita, Kansas, in 1946. Mooney's interest in private aircraft reached back to his engineering work at Monocoupe, Bellanca, and Alexander. At Culver, they had built the pre-war Culver Dart and Culver Cadet that became the production PQ-8 and PQ-14 pilotless aircraft and target drones during World War II. The post-war M-18 design was, to some extent, based on many of the successful features of the Culver V and PQ drone airplanes.

The M-18 Mite was designed in 1946 and was first test flown on May 17, 1947 by test pilot Bill Taylor. Performance was acceptable but some high angle of attack buffeting was encountered. This was corrected through wing leading edge modifications and the addition of a trailing edge wing root fillet. However, the most severe problem was the modified 25 hp Crosley automobile engine conversion used to power the airplane. With a series of exhaust valve failures and a crank shaft failure during the engine and flight tests, the finall CAA certification was delayed until July 30, 1948. The Crosley powered M18s were subsequently retrofitted with the 65 hp 0-145 Lyncoming engine. This made a major improvement in the overall performance which included an increase in the top speed from 100 mph to 138 mph.

The Mite was a well streamlined, enclosed cockpit, single-place, low-wing monoplane, equipped with a manually retractable tricycle landing gear and wing flaps, features that were not available on this class of airplane during that time. The forward fuselage is a welded steel tube structure covered with sheet aluminum panels and the entire rear fuselage is a semi-monocoque wood framework covered with plywood. The cantilever wings are a single spar wood structure with the leading edge box covered with plywood and the remainder of the wing, including the ailerons and flaps, covered with fabric. The retractable landing gear wheel wells are located in the inboard section just aft of the main spar box. The tail section is a plywood-covered wood structure that is itself covered and sealed with fabric. The cockpit is enclosed with a sliding canopy and the airplane can be flown with it in the closed, open, or vent position. The cramped cockpit has a standard stick and rudder pedals with toe brakes. The tricycle landing gear is manually retracted with a lever in the cockpit and the nose wheel is steerable. The erratic flight path of the aircraft during the manual retraction procedure by a first time pilot was frequently a source of much commentary by his peers on the ground.

Pilots in search of a small but quick airplane appreciated the performance and maneuverability. This airplane pioneered the Mooney trademark forward-swept vertical fins that are still an identifying feature on today's Mooney airplanes. It also incorporated a Mooney patented automatic trim system called "Safe-Trim," a moveable horizontal stabilizer that is interconnected to the flaps so that the airplane automatically maintains nose-attitude trim during flap extension (adapted from the Mooney designed "Simpli-Fly" system of the post-war Culver V).

There were a total of 295 M18 Mooney Mites of all models produced, 12 of which were the test prototypes that were later retrofitted to production standards. Production in Wichita, Kansas totaled 203 units before Mooney's move to Kerrville, Texas in 1953. The remaining 92 units were produced at the Texas facility before cessation of Mite production in 1955. The airplane was a victim of the post war glut of light aircraft and its own price escalation problems. Meanwhile, Al Mooney had designed the Mark 20, a four-seat aircraft based on the Mite, but left the company later in 1955. The Mooney Mite Corporation later bought the certification and manufacturing rights to the Mite and sodl the airplane in kit form to homebuilders.

While the records of Mite # 1 from 1947 to 1951 are not clear, an official 1950 Mooney document indicates that a Continental A-65-8 engine replaced the Crosley Cobra and the aircraft was renumbered 201. The Solo Flying Club of Washington, D.C., owned and operated the airplane for most of its flying life. In 1951, they added night-flying equipment including a generator, battery, navigation and cockpit lights, instruments, auxiliary fuel tank, and radio equipment. In 1952, the Club installed a Continental C-85-12F engine, upgraded radio and navigation equipment, and painted the aircraft red and white with black trim scheme. In May 1968, the Club reinstalled the 65 hp A-65-8 engine and previous radio and navigation equipment in anticipation of its sale. T.G. Shelbrack of Portsmouth, Ohio, bought the aircraft in 1969.

Johan Kala, a Finnish immigrant and airplane mechanic in Easton, Pennsylvania, eventually acquired the Mite and donated it in 1981. A 1980 letter from the Mooney Mite Aircraft Corporation of Charlottesville, Virginia, verified that this Mite is serial number one. Legal matters delayed the title transfer until 1983. Dave Blanton, president of the Javelin Aircraft Corporation and a former test engineer on the original Mooney Mites donated an original Sensenich wood propeller and the reduction drive including the vee belts and mounts for the original Crosley engine installation.

Check Out the Best Illusions of 2016

Smithsonian Magazine

The 2016 winners of the Neural Correlate Society’s Best Illusion of the Year Contest may not only challenge your sense of reality, they could turn what you think you know about the world on its head.

Every year, the contest challenges everyone from artists to ophthalmologists to come up with illusions so mind-bending, you may never understand how they work. The contest solicits public submissions, creates a top ten list using a panel of judges, and then lets the public vote on their top three.

This year’s winners, Mathew T. Harrison and Gideon P. Caplovitz of the University of Nevada Reno, created something truly mind-boggling—a set of seemingly moving black-and-white shapes that aren’t really moving at all. When you take a look at the dots, you’ll realize that they are not in motion, even though the configurations of black-and-white specks seem like they’re morphing into all kinds of designs.

The illusion isn’t just a trippy trick—it’s an example of drifting Gabors. Gabor patches are also known as “Gaussian-windowed, drifting sinusoidal luminance patterns.” The concept is more simple than it sounds. A sine wave can be seen through a grate-like phenomenon that makes it appear like a moving object. Gabors are sometimes used to test or train vision. In this case, the context of many Gabors whose filters drift makes it look as if all of the spots are moving around. This isn’t the first time Caplovitz has confused onlookers: He’s a neuroscientist who’s been in the contest’s top ten before.

In second place is Kokichi Sugihara, an engineer who has created something truly bizarre. This seemingly impossible illusion, which Sugihara calls the “ambiguous cylinder illusion,” tricks the brain with objects that look square, but seem to become circular when placed in front of a mirror.

“We cannot correct our interpretations although we logically know that they come from the same objects,” writes Sugihara. “Even if the object is rotated in front of a viewer, it is difficult to understand the true shape of the object, and thus the illusion does not disappear.”

That statement characterizes the weirdness of watching an object morph from squares into circles and back again, but it doesn’t explain the illusion. It took 3D printing specialist “Devon” from the Make Anything channel on YouTube reverse engineering the illusion to reveal what is going on. The trick relies on a cylinder that looks square from the bottom, but has curved sides that, when placed next to a mirror at the right angle, look circular instead. The trick relies on a lazy brain that tries to fill in all four sides with the shape it perceives. Not bad for a simple cylinder.

The contest’s third place winner, “Silhouette Zoetrope” by Christine Veras, is an empty, zoetrope-like object that seems to leap to life when spun. But unlike a regular zoetrope, it doesn’t contain animated illustrations. Rather, the light of the cylinder makes it look like birds on the outside of the zooetrope are inside in silhouette. And even more weirdly, the birds seem to fly in the opposite direction that they point when stable.

Veras, a Ph.D student in art, design and media, created the illusion by combining multiple visual effects. In a release about the prize, Nanyang Technological University explains that multiple visual phenomena are at play. The flashing glimpses of birds in different positions tricks the brain into thinking that they are moving with a phenomenon called stroboscopic apparent motion, while an accommodation conflict between the eye’s desire to focus on multiple images at different depths makes it look like the birds are inside the spinning zoetrope. And then there’s Emmert’s law, which makes objects of the same size appear to be different in physical size when their perceived distance increases.

Essentially, all three illusions rely on the brain to interpret information from the eyes, but the brains fill in information that isn’t necessarily correct depending on what they expect to see. If it sounds confusing, it is; the release notes that the relationship between sight and perception is still being studied.

Ultimately, what we see and what we perceive are not always the same thing. That makes for some stunning stumpers and provides plenty of fodder for scientists looking to unravel the mysteries of human cognition. Until they figure it out, the rest of us will just look on...and scratch our heads.

The Oldest Stone Tools Yet Discovered Are Unearthed in Kenya

Smithsonian Magazine

Approximately 3.3 million years ago someone began chipping away at a rock by the side of a river. Eventually, this chipping formed the rock into a tool used, perhaps, to prepare meat or crack nuts. And this technological feat occurred before humans even showed up on the evolutionary scene.

That’s the conclusion of an analysis published today in Nature of the oldest stone tools yet discovered. Unearthed in a dried-up riverbed in Kenya, the shards of scarred rock, including what appear to be early hammers and cutting instruments, predate the previous record holder by around 700,000 years. Though it’s unclear who made the tools, the find is the latest and most convincing in a string of evidence that toolmaking began before any members of the Homo genus walked the Earth.

“This discovery challenges the idea that the main characters that make us human—making stone tools, eating more meat, maybe using language—all evolved at once in a punctuated way, near the origins of the genus Homo,” says Jason Lewis, a paleoanthropologist at Rutgers University and co-author of the study.

Up until now, the earliest clear evidence of stone tools came from a 2.6-million-year-old site in Ethiopia. An early human ancestor called Homo habilis likely made them.  Similar “Oldowan style” tools, known for choppers with one refined edge, have been discovered at several other sites in East and Southern Africa.

The common assumption has been that as Africa’s climate changed and forest canopies gave way to savannas, early hominins diversified and the Homo genus—the line that would produce modern humans—emerged, around 2.8 million years ago. With new environments came new food sources and a need for tools to process those foods. Grassland may have provided ample sources of meat, plants and nuts, while the forest provided shade and cover to prepare them.

But scientists have started to poke holes in that line of thinking. In 2010, researchers found fossilized animal bones in Kenya dating to 3.4 million years ago with cut marks on them—possibly made from a stone tool, though still controversial. Australopithecus afarensis (Lucy’s species) was the only human ancestor or relative around at the same time and place. Another hominin, Australopithecus africanus, appears to have had a grip strong enough for tool use. Studies show chimpanzees use rocks as hammers or anvils on their own in the wild, and, with a little guidance, bonobos are capable of creating stone tools.

Back in July of 2011, Lewis teamed up with his wife and co-author Sonia Harmand, an archaeologist at Stony Brook University, to lead a field expedition in Kenya for the West Turkana Archaeological Project. They were looking for artifacts similar in age to a controversial 3.5 million-year-old species discovered by Meave Leakey’s group years earlier.

But, the survey team took a wrong turn and ended up at a site now called Lomekwi 3 in dried river ravine. “To us it was immediately a very interesting area,” notes Harmand, “with outcrops and erosive cuts, you could see what was normally hidden by the sediment.” So, they spread out and started looking.

Just after teatime, a radio call came in: Someone had spotted a series of strange stones sticking out of the sediment. Scars cut into the stones set them apart from run-of-the-mill rocks. “You can tell these scars are organized,” says Harmand. The rocks had been hit against one another to detach flakes, a process called knapping. Based on geological records for the area, the artifacts had to be at least 2.7 million years old. “We had no champagne that evening, but we were very happy,” Harmand recalls.

Image by MPK-WTAP. Harmand, Lewis and their team originally planned to excavate a different site in July 2011, but after an accidental wrong turn, they decided to explore the Lomekwi 3 site. Their excavations continued in 2012, and the group published their results this week in Nature. (original image)

Image by MPK-WTAP. Harmand and Lewis, above, found telltale scars on the stones found at the Lomekwi site in Kenya, suggesting they were likely used as tools by early hominins. (original image)

Image by MPK-WTAP. A stone tool discovered at the Lomekwi site in Kenya protrudes from the sediment. (original image)

Image by MPK-WTAP. The Lomekwi 3 excavation site is located on the slope of a dried up riverbed near the arid shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya. (original image)

Image by MPK-WTAP. Sonia Harmand examines a stone tool at the Lomekwi 3 site in Kenya. (original image)

As it turned out, the 149 artifacts eventually excavated from the site were even older. Analyses of magnetic minerals and volcanic ash tufts imbedded in the local rocks put the age of the stones at 3.3 million years.

“I've seen the altered rocks, and there is definitely purposeful modification of the stones by the hominins at the Lomekwi site 3.3 million years ago,” says paleoanthropologist Rick Potts, director of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program, who was not affiliated with the study. Potts notes that while the study is exciting, it also raises a lot of big questions.

Among them, how are these new artifacts related to the Oldowan tools? The short answer is no one knows. “We've jumped so far ahead with this discovery, we need to try to connect the dots back to what we know is happening in the early Oldowan,” says Harmand.

What’s perhaps most intriguing about the Lomekwi tools is who made them, why and how.

Further analysis of the markings on the tools and attempts to replicate their production suggests two possible ways: The toolmaker might have set the stone on a flat rock and chipped away at it with a hammer rock. Or, the toolmaker could have held the stone with two hands and hit it against the flat base rock. “It’s very rudimentary,” says Harmand.

(The early humans who made the Oldowan tools used an entirely different method: putting a rock in each hand and striking them together with just the right force at just the right angle—which would have required more dexterity.)

As for who, the species identified by Meave Leakey’s group, Kenyanthropus platyops, is a prime suspect. If that’s true, or if the Lomekwi tools were made by another species outside the human genus, some of the same factors that drove our evolution might also have driven the evolution of other distant cousins.

But, Lewis and Harmand aren’t ruling out the possibility that an unknown member of the human genus once inhabited the area and made the tools. “That's a different but equally interesting story, in which our genus evolved half a million years before, and in response to completely different natural selective pressures, than we currently think,” says Lewis.

Whoever made these tools was somehow motivated to hit two rocks together. Why exactly remains a mystery.

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.

Thirty Years Ago, People Tried to Save the World By Meditating

Smithsonian Magazine

Thirty years ago, New Age believers, pagans, meditation practitioners, hippies and the spiritually curious gathered at “energy centers” around the globe to let out a collective “OM.” The two-day event, which began on the 16th, was dubbed the Harmonic Convergence and is believed to be the first multi-national, simultaneous meditation event ever organized reports Margalit Fox at The New York Times.

The August 1987 events didn't occur on some random days. According to astrology, the two days were when most of the planets in the Solar System formed “trines” or roughly 120 degree angles that supposedly promoted harmony. It was believed that this alignment of the planets would trigger a new age of peace and harmony and “a major unification of souls with purpose on this planet.” Also, it was humanity’s only chance, some believed, to prevent the apocalypse; also, aliens.

The brainchild behind the event and its hazy theology was José Argüelles born Joseph Arguelles, a New Age theorist based in Boulder, Colorado, who initially hailed from Rochester, Minnesota. According to Fox, he earned a doctorate in art from the University of Chicago and taught art history at Princeton and other universities. But a dalliance with the 1960s and '70s counterculture, a struggle with alcoholism and a little LSD drew him out of the classroom and into the mystic, and he soon changed his name from Joseph to José and added an umlaut to his last name.

Argüelles began codifying a set of spiritual beliefs based on calendars, in particular the Mayan calendar. Fox reports that he believed the Gregorian calendar, used by the western world, chopped the year into unnatural cycles, and that humanity suffered because it was out of line with the natural order.

Argüelles study of the Mayan calendar convinced him that the world as we know it would end on the winter solstice of 2012; or aliens would appear; or people would reach a higher spiritual plane (his views changed over time). According to the Associated Press, he believed if 144,000 people across the world meditated together during the 1987 convergence, it would be the beginning of a cleansing process that would last until 1992. The mass meditation, he told the AP, was needed “to create a field of trust, ground the new vibrational frequencies coming in at the time.”

According to another AP story, Argüelles also wrote that the convergence was an entry point for the return of the Maya, which some Convergers would experience as an inner light and some would see as “feathered serpent rainbows turning in the air.”

Harmonic Convergence celebrations took place at 200 sites in the United States, most notably at Mount Shasta, Central Park, Chaco Canyon and Sedona, Arizona. Fifty other celebrations occurred at sites worldwide including Ayer’s Rock, Mount Fuji, Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Egypt. Participants danced, drummed, chanted and meditated together with celebrities including Shirley MacLaine, John Denver and Timothy Leary taking part in the celebrations. Johnny Carson even had his studio audience chant “OM” on the day of the convergence.

“What was amazing about it was … this is going on worldwide, all over the place,” Pat Hogan, who participated in the Convergence in Vancouver, told Bethany Lindsay at CBC News in an interview this year. “It was supposed to be a time when the planets were in exceptional alignment. The idea of it was to raise the consciousness of the planet to bring about an age of peace and ... that we were moving into the Age of Aquarius, which was an age of brotherhood."

Argüelles had even grander expectations. “There may be UFO sightings, or there may not be,” he told CBS News, “but there will definitely be some type of communication of an extraterrestrial nature.”

It’s hard to say whether the Harmonic Convergence staved off the Apocalypse or spared humanity from decades of war, though it does not appear as if aliens made contact with Earth in 1987 or 2012. Sadly, Argüelles was not around long enough to see if his theories would come true. He died in 2011 at the age of 72.

The idea that mass meditation could have an impact on the world persists to this day, bolstered by the popularity of mindful meditation. In fact, the Global Consciousness Project has been investigating whether meditation can create a “coherent” human consciousness since 1998, and mass meditation events like The Big Quiet at Madison Square Garden and the Mass Meditation Initiative in Los Angeles draw thousands of participants. And of the course the biggest proponent of the idea that meditation can change the world is the Transcendental Meditation movement, which believes that if just one percent of a community practices its techniques, it can reduce crime and improve the quality of life for everyone.

How Climate Change Could Make Office Work Even Unhealthier

Smithsonian Magazine

As the world heats up around us, many people take solace in the idea that their indoor lives may not be affected much by climate change.

But a number of experts say that hotter outdoor temperatures and extreme weather events like drought or storms may cause unhealthier conditions and less productivity in offices, schools and other buildings.

“When it comes to climate change and office work, I think that the reality is that our built environment, the buildings we work in and all of our systems, were built for a climate that we’re no longer living in,” says Aaron Bernstein, the associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the Harvard School of Public Health. “From any number of angles, climate change can increase the risk for potentially harmful environments.”

The hotter it gets, the more the cost of air-conditioning in office buildings around the world increases. In Japan, the government has tried since 2005 to get office workers to lose the formal jacket and tie to lower energy costs through campaigns like “Cool Biz,” and some media attention in the Unites States has focused on the idea of getting male office workers to dress a little more casual in the summer to lower the need for extreme (and possibly sexist, according to one columnist) air conditioning.

But apart from the obvious rise in utility costs, the changing climate may also set off a whole host of other problems for those desk-bound among us. Higher carbon levels could induce fatigue and affect decision making while mold and higher ozone levels that react with a number of chemicals used in common cleaning products can cause irritating symptoms like runny noses, dry eyes and other problems.

Carbon in the air

Rising carbon dioxide levels are one of the main problems inside buildings, according to John Spengler, the Akira Yamaguchi Professor of Environmental Health and Human Habitation at the Harvard School of Public Health. CO2 levels hit 400 parts per million in our atmosphere last May, according to readings by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. But Spengler says that CO2 levels in office buildings can be double this amount due to the presence of people inside breathing.

A recent study he was involved in shows that higher CO2 levels can affect work productivity. The researchers gave a number of tests to subjects exposed to different levels of CO2 and found that workers subjected to CO2 levels of 1,000 parts per million or higher showed shortcomings in decision making. Office buildings currently measure around 600 to 1,200 ppm, but these numbers will rise as outside CO2 levels increase with climate change.

“We’re seeing cognitive effects from carbon dioxide levels,” says Spengler, adding that offices aren’t the worst place for CO2 levels. He says tightly-packed schools have been measured at between 1,500 and 2,000 ppm while airplanes waiting on the tarmac for take-off can hit levels of up 4,000, with cruising levels of around 1,500.

“Too much carbon dioxide exposure makes you sleepy,” says Bernstein, who has studied the effects climate has on indoor spaces for around 15 years. “It’s one thing to stunt a business, another thing to stunt a child’s learning ability.”

Sick buildings make for sick employees

As early as the 1980s, office workers were complaining to their doctors about recurring symptoms like headaches, rashes or dry eyes.

Doctors eventually wrapped all these issues into the umbrella term of sick-building syndrome. “It was a fairly large hodgepodge of symptoms,” Bernstein says. But the syndrome isn’t well understood, and could have a number of different causes like background noise or the build-up of CO2, cleaning chemicals and mold.

“It’s become increasingly important to understand in detail what these causes may be,” Bernstein says.

Rising property costs and energy efficiency are two possible causes, prompting tighter buildings and the design of sealed structures more resistant to the elements. The latter saves landlords money on heating or air-conditioning, but sealed environments are also a two-edged sword, because they recirculate harmful chemicals among workers.

Climate change may be exacerbating the moisture the older buildings absorb. Bernstein says that cities like Boston are seeing more intense storms. The moisture can add up in older buildings without adequate drainage systems, causing mold.

While he says that some of the mold scare might be overblown, mold can be a significant trigger of breathing problems, skin conditions and headaches.

Ozone may be another problem contributing to sick building syndrome. As temperatures increase, they prompt higher ozone levels on the earth’s surface. This ozone can react with cleaning chemicals or other scented materials containing terpenes — those with lime scents have a lot. The reactions create other chemicals like aldehydes, which Spengler says can cause irritations in the eyes, nose and throat.

Designing a solution

If increasing carbon has an effect on the work force, why aren’t more businesses addressing these issues? One of the problems is disconnect between the building and the business owners.

“The cost returns on productivity far outweigh the cost of energy,” Spengler says, “but the problem is, different people pay the bills.” Tenants reap the benefits of retrofitting ventilation systems, while buildings owners pay the cost.

But there may be a solution. Brenna Walraven is an advisory board member of the energy efficiency program of the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), a professional organization that recommends standards and regulations for building construction and conditions. She says that the organization has set up an energy performance contracting framework that can lead building owners and the businesses to create cost-sharing systems for making energy improvements.

“It’s a win-win,” Walraven says.

Attack of the office buildings

In 2013, the so-called Walkie-Talkie skyscraper in London was blamed for reflecting light of its unusual curved surface, so strongly that it melted parts of a Jaguar parked on the street nearby. The building had to be fitted with a sunshade device to stop the concentrated beams of light from hitting the parking spaces and nearby shops and the mix up partly resulted in 20 Fenchurch Street winning an award for the worst building of 2015.

While the London example may be a novel case, it may be part of trend of office buildings themselves changing the climate of the area around. Many modern structures are designed with highly reflective window sidings, as they are attractive and keep the rooms inside from overheating. But this sunlight doesn’t disappear, and Spengler says that it has an effect on the sidewalks, parks and other areas surrounding the buildings.

“The implication is that we’re overheating our outdoor spaces, our public realm,” he said. “In our efforts to mitigate energy use and cost, we transfer that somewhere else.”

Is Rent-to-Own Solar Power the Answer?

Smithsonian Magazine

Dressed in a teal green dhoti and a white undershirt, 63-year-old Kisan Singh chuckles when he’s asked how many hours of a typical day the village of Ranchi Bangar gets electricity from the power grid.

“At night, light comes from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., so we can watch television and run the refrigerator and water pump,” he says, with a lopsided grin. “In the daytime, it’s anybody’s guess.”

Retired from the local government irrigation department, Singh lives with his son, daughter-in-law and grandsons in a squat brick house about 100 miles southeast of India’s capital, New Delhi. It’s a simple four-room dwelling—practically windowless, with brick walls and bare concrete floor, a few pots and pans stored on shelves, and plastic lawn chairs and nylon cots as the only furniture.

When it comes to green energy, however, the little house could well represent India’s future.

For a little more than a year, the family has been supplementing the sporadic electricity the village gets from the grid with solar energy, thanks to a new pay-as-you-go business model pioneered by Canadian entrepreneur Paul Needham and his company, Simpa Networks. Call it “rent-to-own solar.”

Paul Needham, CEO of Simpa Networks (Simpa Networks)

Needham is a serial tech entrepreneur whose online advertising company BidClix made its way into the portfolio of Microsoft. As a doctoral student in economics at Cambridge, he was obsessed with the reasons customers will shell out for certain products and not others. One of the questions that always bugged him was, “Why don’t I own solar panels?” The reason, he determined, was the high up-front costs.

Imagine if mobile phone service was sold like solar energy. From an operator’s perspective, it would have made great sense to try to sell customers 10 years of phone calls in advance, so as to quickly earn back the money invested in building cell towers. But the person who suggested such a strategy would have been fired immediately, Needham says.

“You want to charge people for what they value, not the technology that’s providing it,” he says in a telephone interview.

Realizing that the poorer the consumer, the more that axiom holds true, Needham teamed up with two microfinance experts about five years ago to develop small solar house systems for sale in India on a pay-as-you-go model. Today, they’ve installed systems in more than 20,000 homes and created 300 full-time jobs, as well as opportunities for 500-odd technicians and “solar entrepreneurs” who sell services based on having electricity in their shops or homes.

With $11 million in financing from various venture capitalists, as well as organizations like the Asian Development Bank and USAID, the company is scaling up fast—now growing its customer base by around 10 percent a month. The target is 1 million solar rooftops in rural India by 2019. With a little tweaking, the model could work in other developing countries, even in sophisticated markets like the U.S., Needham says. It’s actually been applied with some success in the U.S., he explains, but companies face issues due to the financing side of it. Entrepreneurs have to invest in equipment up front and only realize payments over time, so it's easy to go bust if they don't have enough capital.

It costs about $270 to buy the system outright and get free electricity for an estimated 10 years. (Simpa Networks)

Simpa’s solution borrows from prepaid cell service and the “rent-to-own” schemes notorious for fleecing poor Americans desperate for a television—turned to a good end.

With the most basic system, customers get a 40 watt solar panel, a 26 amp-hour battery, two LED lights, a 15-watt electrical outlet for appliances and two ports to charge or power USB devices—all of which operate using direct current (DC), so no inverter is necessary. The blue rooftop panel is about the size of a card table, angled toward the sun. The meter looks a bit like a car battery, with an e-ink readout to show how many “days” balance is remaining. It comes with special LED tube lights, about half the size of the schoolroom fluorescents we're used to, and a freestanding electric fan.

It costs about $270 to buy the system outright and get free electricity for an estimated 10 years. But most customers choose a pay-as-you-go contract that allows them to purchase the kit in monthly payments over two or three years. Over three years, that means paying an extra 50 percent for the system. But the small payments are easy to manage, and the arrangement makes customers confident that the company will keep the equipment working, so as to get paid. The pay-as-you-go system also features on-site service and an extended warranty.

That’s proven to be vital, because do-gooders and fly-by-night companies alike have in the past failed to maintain systems installed with loans or charitable funds, sowing general distrust in solar, Needham says.

“When the batteries need to be topped up or there’s a little problem with the wiring, those systems just stop working,” he says.

Today, Simpa Networks has installed systems in more than 20,000 homes. The target is 1 million solar rooftops in rural India by 2019. (Simpa Networks)

With the pay-as-you-go scheme, customers typically pay 15 to 30 U.S. cents a day to power a fan, three lights and a mobile phone charger. They can see how many days they have remaining by pressing a button on the keypad of their meter, and call a customer service rep to take a top-up payment anytime, with cash-back bonuses for bulk purchases. About 10 percent choose to buy the system outright after six months or so, Needham said, and everybody is attracted to the idea that their payments are going toward a purchase.

“What we found was that most people wanted to own the equipment themselves; they didn’t just want to keep paying to use it,” Needham says.

Apart from helping India in its battle to lower greenhouse gas emissions and relieving the strain on its overburdened power grid, the business could play an important role in reducing poverty, he believes.

“Before we got the solar system, I was cooking in the dark,” says 26-year-old Anjali Gehlot. “We were using candles and kerosene lamps. My children weren’t able to study at night or they weren’t able to sleep because there was no fan.” (Jason Overdorf)

Worldwide, approximately 1.6 billion people have no access to electricity and another 1 billion have extremely unreliable access, according to a Simpa case study. The poorest spend up to a third of their income on kerosene and access to third-party electricity—a whopping $38 billion for kerosene and $10 billion to charge their cell phones. That means over the 10-year lifespan of one of Simpa’s more advanced $400 solar systems, a typical user would have spent $1,500 to $2,000 on kerosene, candles, batteries and phone charging. Meanwhile, they’ll have missed out on economic benefits associated with electrification, including increasing income-generating working hours and improving school performance.

“Before we got the solar system, I was cooking in the dark,” says 26-year-old Anjali Gehlot, Singh's daughter-in-law. “We were using candles and kerosene lamps. My children weren’t able to study at night or they weren’t able to sleep because there was no fan.”

With temperatures soaring to more than 104 degrees Fahrenheit for almost half the year in Ranchi Bangar, that’s a huge selling point. So much so that Gehlot prevailed on her husband to have a second “Turbo 240” system—the number 240 refers to its two 40-watt panels—installed three months earlier.

In total, the family now pays about $24 a month for solar power—about 15 percent of what Gehlot spends to feed a family of five—as a result. But the added comfort is more than worth that price, she says.

“It’s cheaper than the bill for the grid electricity,” Gehlot says.

And the light always comes on when she flicks the switch.

Bringing the Migration Walkway to Life

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

We bring our traditions with us as we move through life, and those traditions change on our path—sometimes in surprising ways. At the 2017 Folklife Festival’s On the Move program, the transformation implied in movement was represented by the Migration Walkway, a curving wooden path with high-vaulting portals that crossed through the Festival grounds.

The walkway twisted under your feet and above your head, simultaneously conveying a sense of motion and stasis. The raised platform offered an unparalleled view of On the Move: a two-week series of performances exploring and celebrating the way people and their cultures move to and within the United States. Many people worked together to bring the Migration Walkway to life: over the course of several months, carpenters, painters, lighting designers, dancers, artists, and visitors all added their stories and made the walkway their own. 

Envisioning the Walkway

When technical director Tyler Nelson started thinking about walkways to incorporate into On the Move.

“I was looking for inspiration in architectural structures that allow people to pass rather than creating a barrier,” he said. He knew he wanted a pathway or bridge that conveyed a sense of movement within the structure itself—a work of art as well as a functional piece of architecture. He found examples of this in the High Trestle Trail Bridge of Madrid, Iowa, and the Lachiku bamboo bridge in Tokyo, Japan. Both use square frames in a rotating pattern to cover a raised path, capturing the feeling of continuing movement.  

Tyler also found an infographic illustrating population movement among countries over a twenty-year period. Using swooping, colored lines that vary in thickness to reflect the volume of people, the graph emphasizes that people and cultures move in multiple directions at once and rarely in straight lines.

Festival carpenter Anna Kann had a week and a half to turn these example images into a functional design. She left large spaces between each portal, creating multiple entry and exit points for visitors. This evoked the theme but also made the bridge more accessible as a seating area and easier to install.

AutoCAD designs for the Migration Walkway
AutoCAD designs for the Migration Walkway.
Design by Tyler Nelson and Anna Kann

“Paths lead all directions, and people come on and off at different points,” Anna explained. “It’s all fluid.”

As Anna and the rest of the technical team moved her design from paper to reality, it continued to evolve. Lighting designer Charlie Marcus added panels of multicolored LED lights under each of the portals. He wanted to attract people to the structure by day and allow them to enjoy it by night. The On the Move theme resonated with Charlie personally.

“I’m Jewish, and all my family is in New York and Florida, and there’s a still a bridge even after generations,” he said. “Whether it’s a bridge or I-95, it still connects us together.”

Scenic painter Carolyn Hampton added her own perspective, designing a series of paths on the walkway floor to evoke the themes of movement and migration. She looked at the graphic Tyler used for his initial inspiration and realized that “any linear thing wouldn’t work.” Initially the plan was to draw swoops of color, like the ones on the infographic.

“Then I had a crazy idea,” she reflected. “Wouldn’t it be really cool if we could make the bands actual pathways that are ways that people travel from one place to the other? That’s the idea behind it: people travel by ocean, or on the dirt road, or they fly.”

Carolyn’s design created a series of paths within the path, evoking roadways, railways, waterways, and skyways.

Animating the Walkway

During the first week of the Festival, Mestre João Grande and Mestre Jelon Vieira, two renowned capoeira teachers, created a new communal atmosphere on the walkway, inviting interaction and physical dialogue among vibrant traditions. Capoeira is a dance-like martial art with a long and complex history, starting as self-defense among Brazilian slaves and continuing as a significant expression of a broader sense of Brazilian tradition and identity.

Capoeira on the Migration Walkway
Capoeiristas practice in time to the music during an open class on the Migration Walkway.
Photo by Daniel Martinez, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

João Grande and Vieira offered open classes on the Migration Walkway, encouraging people of all backgrounds and experience levels to interact. They each took one side of the walkway to demonstrate their styles of capoeira—Angola and regional, respectively—allowing the two styles to share space while retaining their distinct characteristics.

The second week, Viajeros de las Américas activated the walkway in a different manner. Group director Ubaldo Sánchez has been helping create alfombras de aserrín, or carpet murals, since he was five years old. Ubaldo is a member of the Mam people, an indigenous community in Guatemala of Mayan descent: Mam is his native language, while Spanish is his second and English his third.

For Ubaldo and others, the alfombra connects present-day traditions to Mayan history. Pre-Colombian Mayans created carpet murals of rose petals for royalty to walk on, and the Catholic Church later adopted the tradition for religious ceremonies and changed the ingredients to sawdust. Ubaldo and other Central American artists in the D.C. area have designed countless alfombras to create a sense of community and educate people of all backgrounds about Mam and Mayan traditions.

Once the artists began working on the walkway, they added new elements to their original design. First of all, the shape of the walkway surprised them.

“We thought that it was all going to be squared off,” Ubaldo said. “But when we saw it wasn’t like that, it came out really pretty with the angles it had.”

To accommodate the winding walkway, they added a slight curve to the murals. After forgetting one of the pattern molds, they created a new border design using ears of corn. Explaining the changes, Ubaldo emphasized the importance of improvisation and resourcefulness in the art of the alfombra. The final piece, synthesizing the original design and the place and time in which it was created, became part of the living art that people of all backgrounds walked across in a ceremonial procession to close the Festival.

The Migration Walkway is a representation of what people and cultures look like when they are on the move. As they moved across its surface, the builders, artists, athletes, visitors, and educators each took ownership of the structure, recreating it with their own experiences and vision. This ownership provided satisfaction, but the people responsible for the walkway were still surprised by it. Visitors interacted on the walkway with each other, even coming back at night to take pictures; capoeiristas and alfombra artists made the structure an unexpectedly integral part of their performances and teaching.

When the structure was taken down, its parts were saved, to be reassembled and used again in a future Festival. The Migration Walkway, and the people who helped build it, are still on the move.

Jessie Riddle is an intern with the 2017 On the Move program and a PhD student in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University. Her areas of focus include Latino and Latin American Studies, stories about place, and belief studies.

Ross Precision Computer Circular Slide Rule

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

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

Smithsonian Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

News Brief: Underwear of the Future Could Help Prevent Back Pain

Smithsonian Magazine

What have your undies done for you today? They may blanket your behind, pad your periods, or even filter your flatulence. But if Karl Zelik has anything to do with it, underwear of the future may also help prevent back pain.

Zelik is a biomedical engineer at Vanderbilt University who researches lower limb biomechanics and prosthetics. Before his current research, he says, "I've never really thought about spine biomechanics or lower back pain in any depth."

But two years ago, his life changed; He became a father.

Since that eventful day, his son has grown increasingly heavy, and lifting him has taken a toll on Zelik's back. So he turned this pain into productivity, and began investigating pain prevention using a concealable wearable gadget. Now after several years of research and hundreds of iterations, his so-called "smart underwear"—which he and the team have filed to patent—is making its U.S. debut this week at the American Society of Biomechanics conference in Boulder, Colorado.

Every time you lift or lean, you have to contract your lower back muscles to "prevent you from falling on your face," Zelik explains. But people in jobs that require extensive lifting or leaning (or dads toting their children around) constantly use these small back muscles, which can eventually lead to pain from overuse or even injury.

According to the 2015 Global Burden of Disease analysis, neck and back pain have become the "leading global cause of disability" in most countries. Up to 80 percent of people experience back pain at some point during their lifetime. And as injury rates soar, so has the use of back belts, but there is insufficient evidence these actually help prevent back injury, according to the Centers for Disease Control website.

Enter Zelik. He hopes to tackle the problem of back pain with a wearable, assistive device that can help with lifting, but doesn't require a bulky Ironman-like exoskeleton. In brief, the smart underwear consists of a vest and a pair of bike-short-like bottoms, connected by a set of straps that criss-cross from shoulder to shorts along the back. Each of these straps has two sections: a stretchy upper elastic and a lower firm, rubber-like material.

The device contains a tiny motor, smaller than a tube of lip balm, housed in the front pocket of the vest. If you bend over while the device is in the "off" position, the stretchy elastic moves with your body. "It would just feel like normal clothing," says Zelik. When it's switched on, however, a pair of "clutches" prevents the elastic from stretching. When you bend over, the tough, rubber-like material attached to the thighs becomes taut, taking off some of the pressure that would otherwise be placed on your muscles.

The "smart underwear" is designed to take stress off a wearer's lower back. (Joe Howell/Vanderbilt University)

"It's a bit like compression garments, but specially designed to transfer force to your legs in a way that won't slip or give you a wedgie," says Zelik.

The team is still working out the optimal way to signal to the device that you're dipping down, but currently it can be done by tapping the front of the vest, using a smartphone app, or gesturing while wearing a specially made armband.

The researchers tested their prototype on eight subjects who had to lift 25 and 55 pound weights as well as lean over at three different angles. To actually quantify the benefits of the underwear, they attached sensors to the wearer's body to measure the natural electrical potentials generated during muscle contraction. The tests suggest that the smart underwear can reduce the load on the back by 15 to 45 percent, depending on the task, says Zelik.

"I think it's a practical solution that is based on an elegant design," says Conor Walsh, a biomechanical engineer at Harvard University, who was not involved in the development of the new garment. Walsh's research focuses on the use of robotic technology to augment and restore human performance, including the development of soft exosuits to assist with trekking long distances.

"It's really exciting to see more people working in this area," he says. A lot of groups who work with similar assistive technologies have focused on the legs, Walsh explains, but this latest design "demonstrates that you can apply these kinds of tissue or muscle unloading techniques in different parts of the body."

Though the latest iteration isn't quite ready for market, Zelik’s team is inching closer. "There's still a lot of research to be done," he says. He plans to test how the device impacts fatigue with repetitive tasks or holding a leaning position for an extended period of time. He also hopes to study the long-term effects of wearing the smart underwear—with frequent washing, of course—to see if the moderate assistance can actually help reduce incidence of injury, or if it causes any unintended consequences.

"What's cool is it's a proof of concept that showed that [all of the device's parts] could fit into a very small form factor," says Zelik. "You don't need a big wearable robot to fit around you." One of his directives for the project was that every part of the prototype could be made out of smaller or thinner materials for a production model. He expects future versions to be more easily hidden under clothes.

To be clear, Zelik emphasizes, the device is intended to prevent back pain from starting in the first place, not treat it once it strikes. But the team’s tests suggest that this is a promising method to reduce loading on the back during strenuous lifting and other tasks.

When asked how long until wearables such as Zelik’s make it to market, Walsh doesn't hesitate to answer. "Definitely within five years," he says. "The reason that I'm convinced of that is a lot of these systems are really designed with simplicity and practicality in mind," he says. "They're not the Ironman suits that needs a nuclear reactor in the chest to power them."

But, as with getting most new-fangled tech products to market, that timeline is elastic.

The Disappearing Habitats of the Vaux’s Swifts

Smithsonian Magazine

Larry Schwitters, a fit 70-year-old in black Ray-Ban sunglasses, climbed a narrow, 40-foot ladder to the top of an old brick chimney on an elementary school. It was a sunny day in Monroe, Washington, and heat radiated off the flat, tar roof. Schwitters, uncertain whether or not the extension on the ladder was locking securely, jiggled it warily. Schwitters looked vulnerable so high in the air, even rigged to a climbing rope held by a friend. “Larry takes his life into his hands when he does this,” said the man holding the rope, Jim Rettig, president of a nearby Audubon Society chapter. “No, I take my life in your hands,” Schwitters called down.

Schwitters is a retired science teacher and former mountain climber who no longer thrills to heights. But he needed to repair a microphone he had fitted to the top of the chimney along with a video camera. When it’s working correctly, the equipment records the activity of birds called Vaux’s swifts. Like their cousins the chimney swifts, which live in the Eastern United States, these Western birds gather in huge groups inside old brick chimneys. The sounds and images from the equipment stream live over the Internet. The swift is Schwitters’ idée fixe. He spends at least 30 hours a each week on swift-related projects like this one.

No one knows exactly where Vaux’s (pronounced “vauks”) swifts spend the winter, or the details of their migration route. It’s not even known whether they migrate at night, as most birds do. But we do know the birds need chimneys. Schwitters has discovered that this one at Frank Wagner Elementary School might be the most important chimney in the region—more than 26,000 birds have been counted entering it in one evening.

Four years ago, this unused, 1939 chimney was a candidate for demolition as an earthquake hazard. Countless other old swift-sheltering chimneys, obsolete in buildings with modern heating systems, have already been lost to renovations or collapse. Schwitters and a growing band of others want to uncover more of the swifts’ secrets, and in the process stop more of the birds’ chimney stacks from falling.

On a busy night, the birds would be clinging to the bricks on the inside of the chimney in overlapping layers. But today Schwitters saw only one inside the stack. “Well, hello, birdie,” he piped.

Standing on the roof, I found a dead swift, remarkably intact, and scooped it up. Hold a soft, soot-brown Chaetura vauxi in your hand and you’ll feel how light it is—no heavier than a handful of cotton balls. You’ll also get a sense for what kind of flier it might be—the bird is mostly wings, two scimitar-shaped extensions that give loft to a stubby body and short, squared-off tail.

“They’re some of the most aerial of all birds,” says Charles Collins, a swift researcher and professor emeritus at California State University, Long Beach. “If they’re not feeding young, they’re probably on the wing all day.” In the air, they feed on insects and ballooning baby spiders. The birds’ high-flying ways may be one reason we know so little about this species.

The birds gather in huge numbers in the sky in the evening, swooping and whirling together on those elegant wings, then forming a gyre and plunging into the chimney for the night. “There are prettier birds, like the warblers, or bigger birds, like the great blue heron,” says Rettig. “But just to watch the swifts all together, well, it takes my breath away.”

Vaux’s swifts originally roosted and nested not in chimneys but in the hollow trunks and branches of old or dead trees. But those are few and far between on the modern migration route. Looking south from the Wagner School roof, there’s a bald patch on the foothills of the Cascade mountain range, a clear-cut in a spot where swifts might once have slept over. That’s why chimneys like these have become essential habitat.

Swifts are agile in the air, but not on land. They’re in the family Apodidae, a group of birds that can’t perch or walk—they can only cling. Since around the time of World War II, brick chimneys have been lined with metal or other materials to meet modern fire codes, and Vaux’s can’t use them. Chimneys older than that are generally crumbling, and therefore endangered.

The Monroe chimney may have hosted swifts, unnoticed, for years. “People who lived right there didn’t know about it,” Schwitters said. If they did, they thought the birds were some other species. An unidentified wag had even posted a sign on one of the school’s windows: “They’re not bats.”

Audubon members approached Schwitters and asked if he could help make the case for saving the chimney. “Just pulling your car up beside a school with a chimney on it looked pretty easy for this old guy,” he said. So he set to work counting the birds on evenings in spring and fall. His first visit in 2006 wasn’t especially promising—only 1,000 birds. But every night he returned—eventually with other people he’d recruited and trained in the art of counting birds by tens—he saw more. “We discovered that the numbers here dwarfed those at the Chapman School,” a more famous roosting site in Portland. “If this chimney was removed, the birds would have to roost elsewhere.” As he soon learned, there weren’t a lot of other elsewheres.

Schwitters, local Audubon chapters and school officials organized into a group called Vaux’s Happening to begin fund-raising for a hazard assessment and retrofit. They also held their first public event, a Swift’s Night Out. Audubon volunteers showed people what a swift’s wing looks like. Schwitters gave a presentation inside the school auditorium, and near the end of it someone threw open the door at the back of the auditorium and cried, “The swifts are here!” Outside, people gasped and squealed at the bird acrobatics, and cheered as they finally began circling the chimney, and then funneled in.

Schwitters decided to expand his range, calling bird organizations up and down the migration route, seeking more volunteers to look for other chimneys and count their swifts. He used Google Earth to identify likely chimneys in the bird’s range and e-mailed strangers nearby, asking if they’d be willing to go to a chimney some evening and look to see if little birds were gathering around it.

Collins, the swift professor in Long Beach, says the research Schwitters is aggregating is not only good for saving chimneys, it’s also useful science. “On a year to year basis, it’s a way of keeping an eye on whether or not there’s a dramatic decrease that might be an early warning that there’s something going wrong in their collective environment,” he said.

The project to save chimneys has already had several successes. Mark Sylbert, a painter and Hollywood art director who lives in a converted 1918 factory building in Los Angeles, learned about the project through a series of forwarded e-mails. Years ago he had stood with his wife and infant daughter on their fire escape and watched birds flying over another old brick building at sunset. The birds’ high-pitched twittering was often drowned out by city noise, but nothing overshadowed the visual drama as they swirled into a huge brick chimney. “It was so thick with birds it was staggering,” said Sylbert. When he heard about the Vaux’s Happening project Sylbert e-mailed Schwitters, sure that this was the same species. But Sylbert had lost track of the birds with a second kid and busy career. The building the birds had used had been converted to lofts, and the chimney knocked down. Schwitters convinced him to look for another likely chimney.

“To me that was just like a treasure hunt,” Sylbert said. He drove around downtown Los Angeles with his head tilted up at the sky. “It’s not really a safe activity,” he said. “I don’t recommend copying me.”

He found the birds, though, flying over City Hall at sunset. He followed them to the 12-story brick Chester Williams building and got out to watch them. An article about it ended up in the Los Angeles Times, and Jeff Chapman of the Audubon Society in Los Angeles has gone on to organize events for public school kids to come out and see the Chester Williams Vaux’s. Sylbert compares the event to taking his kids on a whale watch expedition. “But you have to have money to go out and whale-watch—this is something that brings itself right into the core of L.A."

Other volunteers have similar stories of finding sites in San Diego, San Francisco and elsewhere along the migration route. But few locations so far have been protected. Out of the 12 biggest roost sites Schwitters has identified, five have been torn down or capped since the study began. Several others, while not under immediate threat, could be torn down at any time.

But not the chimney in Monroe. Last fall, repairs there were finally completed. As it turned out, the stack didn’t need rebuilding, only stabilizing with angle iron, brackets on all four corners of the chimney which extend up its length. There was even money left for a kiosk in front of the school, where the community and Vaux’s watchers can learn more about the birds’ lives. “In fact, the chimney has added value to the school,” said Ken Hoover, superintendent of Monroe public schools.

“I’ve traveled far to watch birds,” said Christopher Adler, a music professor in San Diego who helped find a roost site in a nearby church chimney. “Thailand, Laos, Cambodia. But seeing those 10,000 Vaux’s in one night,” he said. “I’ve really never seen anything like that. Every direction I looked, they were as far as the eyes could see.”

If Larry Schwitters gets his way, more and more people will have that thrill. “We took him on to help save the chimney,” said Mike Blackbird, president of the Pilchuck Audubon society, at a recent celebration of the Monroe chimney win. “He went on to try to save the species.”

The Incomparable Legacy of Lead Belly

Smithsonian Magazine

“If you asked ten people in the street if they knew who Lead Belly was,” Smithsonian archivist Jeff Place says, “eight wouldn’t know.”

Chances are, though, they’d know many of Lead Belly songs that have been picked up by others. Chief among them: “Goodnight Irene,” an American standard made a No. 1 hit by The Weavers in 1950, one year after the death of the blues man who was first to record it, Huddie Ledbetter, better known as Lead Belly.

But the roster also includes “Where Did You Sleep Last Night,” the spooky song that capped Nirvana’s Grammy winning No. 1 “Unplugged in New York” album in 1994 that sold 5 million copies.

And in between? “Rock Island Line,” recorded by both Lonnie Donegan and Johnny Cash; “House of the Rising Sun,” made a No. 1 hit by the Animals; “Cotton Fields,” sung by Odetta but also the Beach Boys; “Gallows Pole,” as interpreted by Led Zeppelin and “Midnight Special” recorded by Credence Clearwater Revival and a host of others.

Also on the list is “Black Betty,” known to many as a hard-hitting 1977 rock song by Ram Jam that became a sports arena chant and has been covered by Tom Jones.

Few of its fan would realize the origins of that hit as a prison work song, in which its relentless “bam de lam” is meant to simulate the sound of the ax hitting wood, says Place, who co-produced a five-disc boxed set on Lead Belly’s recordings out this week.

John and Alan Lomax, the father and son team of musicologists who recorded prison songs and found Lead Belly chief among its voices in 1933, wrote that “Black Betty” itself referred to a whip, though other prisoners have said it was slang for their transfer wagon.

Either way, it’s an indication of how much the songs of Lead Belly became ingrained into the culture even if audiences aren’t aware of their origins.

Today, 127 years after his birth, and 66 years after his death, there is an effort to change that.


On Feb. 23, the Smithsonian Channel will debut a documentary about the twice-jailed singer who became so influential to music, “Legend of Lead Belly,” including striking color footage of him singing in a cotton field and lauditory comments from Roger McGuinn, Robby Krieger, Judy Collins and Van Morrison, who just says “he’s a genius.”

Then on Feb. 24, Folkways releases a five-disc boxed set in a 140-page large format book that is the first full career retrospective for the blues and folk giant. On April 25, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts will put on an all-star concert that echoes the original intention of the project, “Lead Belly at 125: A Tribute to an American Songster.”

The 125 milestone is meant to mark the anniversary of his birth to sharecroppers in rural Louisiana. But even if you believe some research that says he was born in 1889, that marker has still passed. “Had things happened quicker,” Place says, it all would have been completed for the 125th, who previously put together the massive “Woody at 100” collection on Woody Guthrie in 2012. The vagaries of collecting materials and photographic rights for the extensive book, and shooting the documentary took time.

It was a little easier to assemble the music itself since the Smithsonian through its acquisition of Folkways label, has access to the full span of his recording career, from the first recordings in 1934 to the more sophisticated “Last Sessions” in 1948 in which he was using reel-to-reel tape for the first time, allowing him to also capture the long spoken introductions to many of the songs that are in some cases as important historically as the songs themselves.

Lead Belly wrote dozens of songs, but a lot of the material that he first recorded were acquired from hearing them first sung in the fields or in prison, where he served two stints. He got out each time, according to legend, by writing songs for the governors of those states, who, charmed, gave him his freedom.

The real truth, Place’s research shows, is that he was up for parole for good behavior around those times anyway.

But a good story is a good story. And when the Lomaxes found in Lead Belly a stirring voice but a repository for songs going back to the Civil War, the incarcerations were such a big part of the story, it was often played up in the advertising. Sometimes, he was asked to sing in prison stripes to drive home the point.

And newspapers couldn’t resist the angle, “Sweet Singer of the Swamplands here to Do a Few Tunes Between Homicides” a New York Herald Tribune subhead in 1933 said. “It made a great marketing ploy, until it got too much,” Place says.

Notes from the singer’s niece in the boxed set make it clear “he did not have an ugly temper.” And Lead Belly, annoyed that the Lomaxes inserted themselves as co-writers for purposes of song publishing royalties. “He was at a point of: enough is enough,” Place says.

While the blues man was known to make up songs on the spot, or write a sharp commentary on topical news, he also had a deep memory of any songs he had heard, and carried them forward.


“Supposedly Lead Belly first heard ‘Goodnight Irene,’ sung by an uncle in around 1900,” Place says. “But it has roots in this show tune of the late 19th century called ‘Irene Goodnight.’ He changed it dramatically, his version. But a lot of these songs go back many, many years.”

While the young Lead Belly picked up his trade working for years with Blind Lemon Jefferson, his interests transcended the blues into children’s songs, work songs, show tunes and cowboy songs.

And he stood out, too, for his choice of instrument—a 12-string guitar, so chosen, Place says, so it could be heard above raucous barrooms where he often played. “It worked for him, because he played it in a very percussive way, he was a lot of times trying to simulate the barrelhouse piano sound on the guitar.”

He played a variety of instruments, though, and can be heard on the new collection playing piano on a song called “Big Fat Woman,” and accordion on “John Henry.” While a lot of the music on the new set was issued, a couple of things are previously unreleased, including several sessions he recorded at WNYC in New York, sitting in the studio, running through songs and explaining them before he came to his inevitable theme song, “Good Night Irene.”

One unusual track previously unreleased from the “Last Session” has him listening and singing along to Bessie Smith’s 1929 recording of “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out.”

“Now that’s really cool,” Place says. “I’d play it for people who came through, musicians, and they’d say, ‘That blew my mind, man.’”

The legacy of Lead Belly is clear in the film, when John Reynolds, a friend and author, quotes George Harrison as saying, “if there was no Lead Belly, there would have been no Lonnie Donegan; no Lonnie Donegan, no Beatles. Therefore no Lead Belly, no Beatles.”

And even as Place has been showing the documentary clips in person and online he’s getting the kind of reaction he had hoped. “People are saying, ‘I knew this music. I didn’t know this guy.”

Forget Vinyl. Forget the Cloud. In the Future We'll Listen to Music on UV-Cured 3D-Printed Resin

Smithsonian Magazine

The first time I heard the White Stripes, I remember thinking, "This is high quality rock and roll. Pure and simple." There's something undeniably authentic about the unabashed, heart-on-sleeve music of the White Stripes. It fits seamlessly into the continuum of music history, bridging the past with the present, somehow sounding like both.

When Jack White started the label Third Man Records in 2009, he intended "to bring a spontaneous and tangible aesthetic back into the record business." What does that mean? Well, for one thing, it means making actual records. Like the music of the White Stripes, Third Man's vinyl records combine tradition and innovation.

In June, White released Lazaretto, an innovative 12-inch vinyl record that looks like a standard LP, but has been designed with a few tricks up its sleeve, so to speak. A few of the record's features: "dual grooves" on the opening track of side two mean that either an acoustic or electric version of the song will play depending on where the needle is dropped, holographic angles hand-carved into the surface of the vinyl spin with the record, and two hidden songs are concealed beneath the labels, with one playing at 78 RPM and the other at 45 RPM, making Lazaretto possibly the first three-speed record ever pressed.

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Lazaretto proves what a lot of people already knew: in the face of tapes, CDs, MP3s, and the omnipresent cloud, vinyl records aren't just surviving, they're thriving. New fabrication techniques and digital technologies are expanding the possibilities of the analog medium.

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On the DIY website Instructables, developer and audiophile Amanda Ghassaei has posted experiments in using 3D printing and laser cutting to create custom records. Her instructable teaches other audiophiles to transform audio files into 33 RPM resin records using a very high resolution 3D printer that creates objects layer by very thin layer.

The 3D printer isn't as precise as a vinyl cutting machine, and the sound quality leaves a lot to be desired, but among the clicking, hissing and scratching on the prototype 3D record, Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is unmistakable. Unless you're making a record for an old Fisher Price toy record player, desktop record-pressing isn't quite practical yet, but it is pretty darn cool.

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Ghassaei also created a record by laser cutting the grooves onto plastic, paper and, incredibly, wood. The sound is similar to the 3D printed records, but the maple record is just beautiful. And there’s something almost poetic about carving rings into a tree. I wonder though, what would it sound like if one “played” a very thin slice of a tree, dropping the needle on the grooves created by tree rings? What is the sound of nature? I’m reminded of an essay by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), “Primal Sound,” in which he waxed poetic on a similar notion, wondering what would happen if the gramophone needle was dropped on natural and biological grooves such as the coronal sutures on a human skull:

What would happen? A sound would necessarily result, a series of sounds, music...Feelings—which? Incredulity, timidity, fear, awe—which of all the feelings here possible prevents me from suggesting a name for the primal sound which would then make its appearance in the world?

Rilke imagined the entire world transforming into sound.

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Experimenting with records is a practice that dates back as far as recording itself. Before vinyl became the standard in the 1930s, records were made from a shellac; but before shellac, a variety of materials were tested as inventors searched for a medium to hold sound. Among the 400 early experimental audio recordings in the collection of the National Museum of American History are records made from brass, beeswax, rubber and glass.

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These early recordings have been in the Smithsonian's collection for a very long time, but it wasn't until 2011, when researchers were able to play them using a recently developed, noninvasive sound recovery process developed at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

When one of these glass records—produced by Alexander Graham Bell and his associates in, 1885—is played, among the clicking, hissing and scratching, a man's voice can be heard saying the date and repeating "Mary had a little lamb," perhaps in homage to the first audio record Thomas Edison made in 1877. The fuzzy audio is barely decipherable. It actually sounds a lot like the 3D printed records. And I have to imagine that the joy felt by inventors embedding sound into a glass disc is the same joy felt by today’s developers and hobbyists who embed music onto UV-cured 3D-printed resin.

Forget record store romanticism. Whether or not you believe that listening to music on vinyl somehow constitutes a more authentic experience than listening to digital recordings, there’s something undeniably visceral about physically manifesting sound, about actually making music. Modern musicians, developers, engineers and inventors using new technologies to make beautiful music together are proving that, when it comes to vinyl, we’ve barely scratched the surface.

Five Wild Ideas: From a Vest for Weight Loss to an Electric Skateboard

Smithsonian Magazine

The average American worker spends 13 hours sitting every day at home and at work. Some plant their feet squarely on the ground underneath their desks, but others sit cross-legged or prop their feet up.

For the latter set, Matt Hulme and Brent Murray, two Brigham Young University students from Provo, Utah, have invented the Foot Hammock. Exactly what it sounds like, the product is a miniature mesh or fleece hammock, intended to improve a user's posture, that attaches, with adhesive hooks, to the bottom of any desk. A Kickstarter campaign for the product, which wrapped five days ago, raised $113, 212, blowing its original $15,000 goal out of the water. Who knew?

Here are five other quirky ideas that were funded this week:

The Cold Shoulder Calorie Burning Vest (Goal: $13,500 Raised: $281,319 on Kickstarter)

In order to stay warm when it’s cold, the body must burn extra calories. This logic is the inspiration behind the Cold Shoulder vest, the latest in unconventional approaches to weight loss. The idea comes from NASA scientist Wayne Hayes, who believes that people can drop pounds, even while sedentary, by wearing a garment lined with ice packs.

Users place the vest in the freezer, and once it’s frozen, take it out to wear anytime. Watching television? Commuting to work? Put it on. Through mild cold exposure, Hayes claims that wearers can burn 500 calories daily, which could amount to a pound of fat per week. He also emphasizes the vest's casual wearability. Luckily, his wife was able to talk him out of wearing it at their wedding.

Zboard: An Advanced Electric Skateboard (Goal: $50,000 Raised: $435,000 on Indiegogo)

Bikes may soon have to make way for the Zboard 2, an electric skateboard that starts, stops and adjusts its speed based on the rider subtly shifting weight. Fans of extreme sports, the Northern California inventors of the product want to offer a fun but reliable mode of transportation for short distances.

The lightweight, waterproof board, equipped with LED lights, charges in 90 minutes and tops out at 20 miles per hour, although speed is at the user’s discretion. There are currently two models available: the Blue, which can traverse 16 miles on a charge, and the Pearl, which can cover 24.

Neeo Remote: Universal remote control (Goal: $50,000 Raised: $1,558,280 on Kickstarter)

A Cupertino, California team of designers and engineers has taken the sci-fi notion of a universal remote and made it a reality. Neeo is a two-piece home automation system, consisting of a remote and a “brain."

The brain—a stationary, oval-shaped device that can be placed anywhere in the house—connects to any infrared and Wi-Fi products in the home, including lighting, window shades, the television and speaker systems. It is compatible with over 10,000 home appliances, such as Nest, Sonos and Apple TV. With the remote, the user is able to control all these devices from one place. Just don't lose it.

Facets: Building Blocks of 3D Geometry (Goal: $12,500 Raised: $36,864 on Kickstarter) 

The next-generation of building blocks. (Kickstarter)

Ron Worley, a Las Vegas toymaker, has a fascination for Archimedean solids. If you need a little geometry refresher, these form when two-dimensional shapes, like triangles, rectangles and pentagons, meet at different edges to create something three-dimensional. And to share his nerdy obsession, he created Facets, a set of magnetized blocks that connect at interesting angles. With a set of these dandy things, kids (and adults!) can move beyond the basic tower and build something more reminiscent of a complex molecular model.

Modus Sketching Tool (Goal: $1,400 Raised: $25,754 on Kickstarter)

Modus is a protractor, ruler and compass, all in one. (Kickstarter)

Move over, melon baller. Watch out, egg separator. Sayonara, mango slicer. The Modus puts unitaskers to shame. By Shard Designs of Pleasanton, California, the slick, metal tool boasts 11 uses. It fulfills an artist's many needs, serving as a portable ruler, compass, protractor, T-square and more. The size of a credit card, the Modus can easily stowed in a wallet, where it actually protects against RFID theft.

Bark Cloth

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.


Tapa is nearly square in shape. Front has applied designs that cover the surface. The center has repeating designs of triangle in a diagonal pattern on a field of banding all in lines and dashes in the same light orange brown. The borders are black linear bands with "X" patterns and lines and dashes. According to Adrienne Kaeppler, Curator for Oceania Ethnology, the stenciled border designs are typically Fijian and central design is Tongan. This combination would reflect a tapa from the Lau Islands, centrally located between Fiji and Tonga. Tapa is noted as from Oneata Island in the catalogue. Catalogue also has notations from K. P. Emory of the Bishop Museum, 6-24-1941. He notes that the tapa is from the Lau Isalnds, Oneata and the central design of brown on white tapa is a Kupeti design. Tapa has a 13 inch decorated border and one of the borders has a fringed edge cut at a diagonal. This piece is noted as a "mosquitoe curtain" on a tag stitched to it. The use as a hanging is supported by the gathered tapa at the corners of the unfringed side as well as a lack of a fringe on the same edge. It is quite thin overall and seems to be made in one layer, except where joined. Approximately 16 square pieces, each about 33 x 25 inches, make up the tapa. The strips are adhered by splitting one edge and sandwiching the edge of the adjacent piece into it. Presumably the pieces are adhered together with arrowroot (per Adrienne Kaeppler). This piecing is visible on the back side. There are stencil geometric patterns in rust brown and black on two ends (Fijian design) and a design board used for the central area in rust brown color only (Tongan design). There are small rectangles of plain bark cloth with sharply cut edges adhered to the back. These do not appear to be repairs but may be reinforcements. There is cut fringe along the short sides cut at an angle. The fringe is plain tapa with isolated patches of colorant.

Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver

National Air and Space Museum
Single engine, two seat, folding wing, carrier based scout-bomber.

During World War II, U.S. Navy bombing squadrons flew Helldiver dive-bombers against Japan from November 1943 to the war’s end in September 1945. After a prolonged development, about 30 Navy squadrons operated Helldivers aboard 13 carriers. Changes in carrier tactics, technology, and weapons made dive-bombing—delivering a bomb at a steep angle to increase accuracy—obsolete as the war progressed. The Helldiver was the last dive-bomber operated by the Navy and the last significant combat aircraft produced by Curtiss-Wright.

This Helldiver was completed in May 1945, but the war ended a few months later, and it never saw combat. From September through December 1945, Bombing Squadron (VB) 92 aboard the USS Lexington flew it in the western Pacific and occupied Japan. It served with various other Navy units until 1948 and entered the Museum collection in 1960.

A key component of U.S. Navy and Marine Corps doctrine from the interwar period to the end of World War II was dive bombing, which was the use of an aircraft to deliver a bomb at a steep angle to increase accuracy. U.S. Navy dive bomber squadrons flew Curtiss SB2C Helldivers against Imperial Japan beginning in November 1943 until the end of the war. Changes in carrier tactics, technology, and weapons made the dive bomber obsolescent as the war progressed making the Helldiver the last of the type operated by the U.S. Navy. The Helldiver is also the last significant combat aircraft produced by the Curtiss-Wright Corporation.

The SB2C was the third carrier-based dive bomber called “Helldiver” and produced by Curtiss. “Hell diver” was a heroic and death-defying name for both pilots and aircraft in the popular American imagination beginning in the 1920s. The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production Hell Divers (1932), starring Clark Gable and Wallace Beery as rival aerial gunners, featured the first Helldiver, the F8C-4, which first served aboard USS Saratoga. Naval and Marine aviators flew F8C-4 and -5 and O2C-1 and -2 biplanes in both active and reserve squadrons through the 1930s. Curtiss reused the name for the SBC series, which entered service with scouting squadrons aboard the carriers Yorktown, Saratoga, and Enterprise in late 1937. Designed by Raymond C. Blaylock, the Navy and Marine Corps’ SBC-3 and -4s were the last American combat biplanes. The Navy and Marine Corps did not recognize these aircraft officially as “Helldivers.” What the Navy did recognize was the bombing and reconnaissance capability of dive bombers with the official designation SB (Scout Bomber).

The Navy placed a May 1939 order with Curtiss for a new scout bomber, designated the SB2C (Scout Bomber, Design Number 2, Manufacturer Curtiss), to replace the Vought SB2U Vindicator, the Douglas SBD Dauntless, and the Curtiss SBC. Blaylock and his team designed a two-seat, single-engine monoplane with an internal bay capable of carrying 1,000 pounds of bombs and folding wings to facilitate storage aboard an aircraft carrier. Curtiss constructed a new factory for the Helldiver at Columbus, Ohio. Women and African-Americans trained for the war effort made up a considerable portion of the factory’s workforce. The first Helldiver prototype appeared in December 1940. Numerous design problems, accidents, and the required corrections pushed delivery of the first production Helldiver back to June 1942 with initial fleet delivery to Scouting Squadron (VS) 9 the following December.

The near-disastrous carrier trials in early 1943 were a continuation of the Helldiver’s problems. Landing gear failures and a characteristic bounce that prevented the tail hook from engaging with the cross-deck cable resulted in Helldivers being caught in flight deck barriers. Some SB2Cs experienced structural failures that included the loss of wings in steep dives or tails breaking off mid-air or at landing. Veteran bombing squadron crews and carrier air group officers also had a strong attachment to the easier-to-fly and highly successful Douglas SBD Dauntless. As a result, crews came up with new names for the Helldiver. They nicknamed it the “Beast” due to its size and handling qualities. Irreverent naval aviators and air crewman also called it an “S.O.B. 2nd Class,” which was a profane play on the official Navy designation “SB2C” and the Navy’s enlisted personnel ratings. The Helldiver was faster and carried more ordnance than the Dauntless and intensive training alleviated the handling problems over time.

Bombing Squadron (VB) 17 assigned to Bunker Hill flew the first operational Helldiver sorties on November 11, 1943, when they attacked the Japanese fortress at Rabaul. As the American naval offensives across the Pacific intensified, including the Marianas campaign, the battles of Leyte Gulf and Okinawa, and the attacks against Japan itself, Helldivers became an integral part of the carrier air group. The scout and dive bomber role, however, waned over the course of the war when the carrier air groups utilized faster and more capable Grumman F6F Hellcat and Vought F4U Corsair fighters in the fighter-bomber role and air-to-ground rockets offered increased accuracy. Moreover, the Grumman TBF Avenger was as capable as a level bomber as it was a torpedo bomber. Nevertheless, bombing squadrons aboard Essex, Shangri-La, Wasp, Ticonderoga, Yorktown, and Lexington filled a niche as they flew some of the last combat missions of the war during the summer of 1945. Approximately thirty Navy squadrons operated Helldivers aboard thirteen different carriers during World War II. The U.S. Navy and Naval Reserve continued to operate Helldivers into the early Cold War era with the final aircraft stricken from the active inventory by June 1949. The navies of France, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Thailand operated surplus SB2Cs well into the 1950s.

The design of the SB2C evolved over time. The SB2C-1C featured a 1,500 horsepower Wright Twin Cyclone R-2600-8, three-blade Curtiss Electric propeller, and a 20 mm cannon in each wing. SB2C-3s appeared with a new 1,900 horsepower R-2600-20, four-blade Curtiss Electric propeller, perforated dive brakes to decrease buffeting, four rocket rails under each wing, and the capability to operate an APS-4 airborne radar system. The -3 and the improved SB2C-4 were the Helldivers that equipped the majority of U.S. Navy squadrons during the war in the Pacific with production numbering 3,157 aircraft combined. The SB2C-5 was the last variant in the series. It was an improved version of the SB2C-4 with increased fuel capacity by thirty-five gallons, a frameless pilot’s canopy, tail hook fixed in the extended position, and deletion of the propeller spinner. Most carried the APS-4 system as standard equipment. SB2C-5s entered production in February 1945, which was too late to see widespread service before the end of World War II, with final delivery in October. Total deliveries of SB2C-5s numbered 970 Helldivers.

Total SB2C production at Columbus numbered 5,516 while Canadian Car and Foundry and Fairchild Aircraft, Ltd., in Canada delivered 834 SBWs and 300 SBFs respectively. Curtiss manufactured 900 fixed-wing A-25 dive bombers at its St. Louis, Missouri, factory under contract to the Army Air Forces with final delivery to the Marine Corps.

The U.S. Navy accepted NASM’s Curtiss SB2C-5 Helldiver (BuNo 83479 and Cat# A19610118000) on May 19, 1945, at the Curtiss factory in Columbus, Ohio. The aircraft went to Naval Air Station (NAS) Port Columbus, located on the same airfield, three days later. In June, it was at San Diego where it was prepared for transfer to Guam in the Pacific Theater for assignment to a Carrier Air Service Unit, arriving there in July. The war ended before the Helldiver saw combat, but for the three months that followed, September through December 1945, the artifact was assigned to Bombing Squadron (VB) 92, the “Battling Beasts,” aboard the U.S.S. Lexington (CV-16) in the Pacific, which included service in the western Pacific and occupied Japan.

By January 1946, the Helldiver was with a detachment of Bombing Squadron (VB) 11 at Santa Rosa, California, where it stayed until February 7, 1946. The aircraft had little activity in the months that followed until it was assigned to Attack Squadron (VA) 3A at San Diego for most of the month of November. Activity again lessened; and after its first and only major overhaul on February 13, 1947, the airplane was again active with Aviation Training Unit (VA-ATU) #4 from April 1947 through March 1948 at NAS Jacksonville. It later moved to Norfolk and later to Weeksville Naval Auxiliary Field near Elizabeth City, North Carolina, for preservative treatment and storage. On May 31, 1948, the airplane was dropped from the Navy inventory and set aside for the National Air Museum. It was flown to Norfolk on March 2, 1949, given preservative treatment, and placed in a metal storage container. At that time, the Navy used the Helldiver for a local display and painted in the three- tone camouflage scheme, a pattern which was already outdated prior to the date the aircraft was manufactured. The log book shows an ill-defined thirty minute flight on January 7, 1952, but in all probability, its last flight was on February 3, 1949, having accumulated approximately 630 flying hours.

The Helldiver entered the National Collection in September 1960. At this time, it was probably given another preservative treatment, all of the openings were covered, and it was parked outdoors on the grounds at Suitland, Maryland. In 1975, the aircraft traveled to the National Naval Aviation Museum (NNAM) where it underwent restoration before exhibition in their museum. The NNAM completed the restoration before 1982 and put the artifact on indoor display. The Helldiver returned from NNAM to the Garber Facility in October 2003. In 2010, the Helldiver arrived at the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar at NASM’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

NASM’s Helldiver is one of seven surviving SB2Cs as of 2013 that are complete and in museums or undergoing restoration. Of those seven, five are -5 variants. There are four documented SB2C wrecks in the United States and the Pacific.

Nine Days of a Sailor-Scholar’s Life Aboard the Canoe Circumnavigating the Globe

Smithsonian Magazine

“Welcome to voyaging!” says Nā‘ālehu Anthony after a wave washed over the bow of the canoe and soaked the three of us. We are aboard Hōkūleʻa, the famous Hawaiian voyaging canoe that is going around the world, as it is being towed out of Yorktown, Virginia, and into the Chesapeake Bay.

Hōkūleʻa, which was recently honored by United Nations in recognition of its historic four-year journey to sail around the world, is raising consciousness about caring for Mother Earth. Since departing Hawaiian waters in May 2014, the craft has sailed more than 22,000 nautical miles, visited 13 countries and made stops at 60 ports. I am standing at the forward mast with Zane Havens, another newbie to Hōkūleʻa, and Nā‘ālehu, who at this moment is the captain, and we are literally learning the ropes—the daunting mass of coils and cleats involved in working the sail and the mast.

I have been granted the rare honor of crewing for a portion of this leg of the World Wide Voyage, and will be with the canoe for nine days as it makes its way to Washington, D.C. We will visit Tangier Island, Northern Neck Virginia, Piscataway, and this article along with my other dispatches will detail what we learned along the way.

But first there is the learning necessary to serve as crew: the straightforward lessons about how to work the canoe and how to live on the canoe, and the far more elusive learning of one’s place on the canoe.

My aim before we headed out to the high seas was to get ma‘a to the wa ‘a.

Ma‘a—(MAH-ah) means “accustomed, used to, knowing thoroughly, habituated, familiar, experienced,” and wa‘a  (VAH-ah) is the Hawaiian version of the pan-Polynesian word for canoe.

I am also in the process of building a four-foot model of Hōkūleʻa, and these two processes feed each other: knowing the canoe will help me make the model accurate, and building the model will help me know the canoe better.

Hōkūleʻa is a “performance replica.”  She is built to perform like a traditional canoe, but made of modern materials. The hulls are plywood and fiberglass, the rigging is Dacron. But in other ways, she is an intricate vessel compared to the Hikianalia, the larger and more modern-style canoe I trained on a few months ago. The sails are traditional crab-claw style, the rigging more complicated, the accommodations more…rustic, and on the whole, it is wetter.

A daunting mass of coiled ropes confronts me at Yorktown. Will I ever learn what they all do? (Doug Herman)

When I first came aboard Hōkūleʻa in Yorktown, the coils of lines on the masts were daunting. It was hard to imagine I would ever know what all of these did. “Mau understood this canoe immediately,” I was told by master navigator Kālepa Baybayan, referring to his teacher Pius “Mau” Piailug, the famous navigator from the island of Satawal. “He just looked over all the rigging and understood right away.” But for someone with only a little experience on large sailing canoes, it would take longer.

Hōkūleʻa has two masts—the main mast in front, and the mizzenmast in the center. Each is held in place by a large number of stays—ropes that pull the mast from enough different angles to keep it securely perpendicular to the deck. Unlike most modern sailboats, the masts rest in blocks on the deck. The sails are fastened to a spar—the piece that goes up against the mast—and a boom, which curves outward when the sail is open.

Our first task was to attach the sails to the spars and booms (why they were off in the first place I do not know). Each one is tied on loosely around the spar and boom with little strings, so that the sail can slide freely to attain its proper shape when the wind pushes against it. We had to be careful not to tie these strings around the many lines running up the spars, and several had to be redone. 

Image by Doug Herman. The boom of an open sail (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. Na‘alehu Anthony (foreground, in dark coat) instructs us in how to tie the sails to the spar and boom while in port at Yorktown. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. The “heiau” (temple) that holds the base of the mast. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. Keala Kimura (left) and Kalā Tanaka at the steering paddle. The deck is framed by the many stays holding up the masts, as well as the sheets—ropes that would pull the sails to one side or the other. (original image)

Then the closed sail is hoisted up against the mast. This takes four people, one on each of four halyards, with some others on the deck lifting the sail until it is beyond their reach.  Once the sail is up, the halyards are coiled in a certain way that allows them to be hung on cleats on the mast. This is true of all the lines used in the rigging. A simple loop in the cleated end can be lifted off and the entire coil dropped to the ground when the line needs to be used again.

Opening the sail involves loosening two sets of three tricing lines. These are attached to the boom and they let it out. One person gets on each set of these lines. In addition are what they called “bag lines.” These are attached to points along the top of the sail. When we close the sail, someone pulls on these first to help bundle up the sail nice and tight so that it doesn’t bag out. To open the sail, these need to be loosened.

Nā‘ālehu had us practice raising the sail, opening the sail, closing the sail, and lowering the sail several times until we were all familiar with the process. Of course, most of the crew were seasoned voyagers who had done multiple legs of the Worldwide Voyage already, but this was good practice nonetheless.

Diagram of the many lines used to raise, open and close each sail. The tricing lines are doubled on the other side. (Doug Herman)

Much more complicated is the raising and lowering of the masts themselves. This we needed to do to get under the many bridges leading into Washington, D.C. In fact, we had to do it twice—once to get up to the Lincoln Memorial, where we then put everything back up and opened the sails for a photo shoot, and then down again to get under the next two low bridges; and then up for the final ride to the Washington Canoe Club. 

This process would be easy if we could take down the mizzenmast first, but because there is not sufficient room out in front of the main mast to get a good angle on the rope, the main mast comes down first. It was necessary to put a block and tackle on the front stay, and use lines from the mizzenmast to help lower it down. Problem is, all the stays from the mizzenmast are in the way of lowering the main mast. So they had to be moved, one at a time, as the main mast came down. Plus, the whole process ran in reverse to put it back up. By the third run, we managed to do it all in an hour and a quarter—down two hours the first time. We also had recruited some tall fellows from the Washington Canoe Club to come aboard to help lift.

The complex task of stepping the mast (Photo courtesy of Ōiwi TV )

The other workings of the canoe were familiar to me already: the giant steering sweep—a huge, 18-foot paddle on a pivot that is used to steer the canoe; the workings of the tow line (we were towed the entire way by a separate boat, with the indefatigable Moani Heimuli at the helm.)

Life aboard Hōkūleʻa is rather like camping. Full crew is 14 people—12 crew, the captain and the navigator. Under normal conditions, we would be operating in two shifts, each doing stretches of four, five or six hours at a time as the captain sees fit. In this case, except when we were coming into port, there was little activity on board. Someone needed to be at the steering sweep at all times—sometimes two people, depending how rough it got. Each night we came into a port, where we had access to bathrooms, hot showers and cold drinks. In most places, we also had accommodations with real beds, walking distance from the canoe.

Towards the end, I preferred to sleep on the canoe. I had an assigned bunk that was just my size along the side of the canoe and I could roll back the canvas to watch the stars before drifting off.

Hōkūleʻa is brilliantly designed with a series of hatchways down into each hull, regularly spaced between the booms that hold the two hulls together. A guardrail around the deck has diagonal supports going out to the far edge of each hull. Canvas is stretched over these supports to create kind of a long tent. On the deck side, the zipper doors in the canvas hid the sleeping compartments atop the hatchway. The Hawaiian word “puka” was often used to refer to these. Puka means both “hole” and “doorway,” and so is particularly apt for these low places you crawl into.

Plywood boards have been placed over the hatches, and thick foam pads on top of those.  I had puka #2 on the starboard side—the one closest to the bow (#1 being the entry way onto the canoe). My belongings were kept in a waterproof sea bag, with a few extra things stashed in a cooler alongside the hatchway under the plywood. A clothesline above the door allows you to hang things you need to access regularly—headlamp, hat, sunglasses and so forth. There are also some pockets for things like toiletries and sunscreen.

Image by Doug Herman. The canvas cover over the sleeping areas (pukas), also showing the catwalk and (above it) the safety line that rounds around the outside of the canoe. Far left is the navigator’s platform, the outside of which is the ocean-going toilet. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. The foam sleeping pad lies atop a sheet of plywood, which rests atop the hatch cover. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. Lifting up the plywood shows the hatch cover, some coolers, and a life jacket. A small gear bag needs to be moved to open the hatch. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. Looking into my puka. My hat, waterbottle and sunglasses are clipped to a line outside, my orange sea bag visible inside. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. Down the hatch: cracker boxes and water jugs. (original image)

Image by Doug Herman. Moani Heimuli drives the tow boat, with Arthur C. Harris providing the navigation for the complex conditions of the Chesapeake Bay. (original image)

Inside the hatchways is storage, and the ship’s quartermaster has to keep track of what is stored under each puka. In mine there were a dozen waterproof boxes labeled “crackers” and a handful of five-gallon jugs of potable water. A water cooler was kept on deck and everyone had a water bottle with a carabiner on it so it could be clipped to a line when not in use. 

When the cooler ran out, which happened a few times, I had to move all my gear into the next person’s bunk or out on deck, lift up the plywood and foam pad, remove the hatch cover, and climb down into the hull to lift out another five-gallon jug. This occurred often enough that I kept my puka pretty tidy, and it was used for demonstrations when we came into port.

Over the last two sleeping pukas on each side are the navigator’s platforms. This is where the navigator sits—on which ever side allows him or her to see past the sails. To the rear of these is an open puka on each side. On one side are the buckets for washing dishes: two with plain water for before-and-after rinsing, and one with soap for washing. All this was done in seawater, except coming up the Potomac where we were uncertain about the cleanliness of the water.

Cooking takes place on a two-burner propane stove on deck. It sits in a box with awnings at the sides to keep out the wind. Another box contains all the cooking gear and utensils.  Breakfast and lunch were mostly a hodgepodge of snacks, cut-up oranges and other lite fare. Dinner, however, was a hot meal: something with noodles, often. And hot noodle dishes were also served for lunch on colder, rainier days. During real voyaging, there would be hot water going all day for tea, coffee or cocoa.

Cooking up SPAM singles for a delicious lunch. The crew packet paperwork states that the diet tends to be high fat and low fiber, and that constipation is likely. (Doug Herman)

Everyone wants to know how you go to the bathroom on the canoe. First, if you are not already wearing a safety harness (and on this leg of the voyage, we almost never were) you have to put one on. Then you tell someone that you are going to the bathroom. It’s all about avoiding a man-overboard situation—nobody wants that. (I am told it has happened only three times in 40 years of voyaging on this canoe.)

Then you go out through that back puka, around the back of the navigator’s platform, and onto the catwalk on the outside edge of the hull. Here you clip a tether from your harness onto the safety rope that runs all the way around the outside of the canoe. If you fall off, at least you will be dragged along rather than left behind. Once you are secure, you hang your bare bottom out and do what needs to be done. When you return, you tell that same person that you are back. “Sometimes in rough conditions I’ll be talking to people as they go out,” says Mark Keala Kimura, “and I’ll keep talking to them while they go to the bathroom, just to make sure they’re still there.”

Back in 1976, it was even less private: “The rails are all open, there was no covering, so pretty much when you went you were in full view of everybody,” recalls veteran voyager Penny Rawlins Martin—“with your escort boat behind you!”

On this trip, two small shipboard toilets had been installed in the stern compartments, with canvas curtains that could be drawn. Going up the Intracoastal Waterway from Florida, it was thought to be poor form to have bare bottoms hanging over the side.

The open puka behind the navigator’s platform where dishes are washed also provides access to the catwalk for going to the toilet. In this case, a ship-board toilet is located here as well. Note the curtain that can be pulled. (Doug Herman)

Plain to see on the back of the canoe is a giant plate of solar panels. There is no modern navigational equipment on Hōkūleʻa—not even a compass—but there does need to be power for lights at night, for radio communication with the tow boat, and for the triple-redundancy emergency systems. Safety first.

Overall, the crew is a family, but like any family, there is hierarchy on the canoe: the navigator, the captain, the watch captains, the apprentice navigators. Everyone on board has, in addition to regular crew duties, a particular kuleana—responsibility or skill, such as fisherman, carpenter, doctor, sail-repairer and so forth.

This time our crew contained three people from ‘Ōiwi TV, the only Hawaiian-language television station in the world, working on documenting the voyage with still and video cameras, including a drone. There were educators who ran programming when we were in port. And there was me, documenting the trip for the Smithsonian Institution.

Rex Lokeni watches as the ‘Ōiwi TV crew lift off the drone from the rear solar panels. (Doug Herman)

I also consider myself an educator. A former university professor and now Smithsonian scholar, I’ve been teaching about Polynesian voyaging and migrations for 30 years. More recently, I’ve been writing and lecturing on traditional navigation, and the values of the voyaging canoe and what they tell us about how to live on this planet. I built and sail my own outrigger sailing canoe and have been both blogging and giving lecture and demonstrations about traditional canoe building. And I did do a training voyage in February on the Hikianalia

So I arrived with a certain, tentative confidence, and when in port at educational activities, felt it my kuleana to share the lessons I have derived from so much research. But I quickly felt that something was not going well, and this feeling got stronger as the trip went on. Yes, we were not functioning like a normal crew, and as we were being towed, my inexperienced presence was really hardly necessary. These folks knew what to do and moved like clockwork when things needed to be done. 

These were young, sea-hardened voyagers, some of whom were now on their fifth leg of the Worldwide Voyage (and legs take up to 40 days). I was simply not one of them. 

What right did I have to talk about lessons of the voyaging canoe? I had never been on a real voyage. Finally someone pulled me aside and said “Brah, you are always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.” There were also protocols I was breaking, of which I was not aware.

“You got to have thick skin and you’ve got to work your way up the ropes,” Kālepa had told me in an interview back in 2011. Learning to sail the canoe involves a lot of hard knocks.

Humbled, I realized, even before this calling out, that I needed to shut up. Enough talking about voyaging; now was the time to listen. I came on board thinking I was, well, someone—someone with a part in this. I realized that, for purposes of the canoe, I was no one. A total newbie. And once I realized that, a letting go feeling came over me, and I was happy. I now knew my place on the canoe, and it was good.

The next day, when we were docked in Alexandria and giving tours, I ran into Nā‘ālehu.  “Hey ‘Lehu,” I said cheerfully, “I finally learned my place on the canoe.”  “Oh really?” he responded with a smile.  “Yes,” I said, “I guess everyone has to make that journey at some point.”  He shook his head kindly and replied, “Some people just keep on sailing…” –and never arrived at that shore.

Now I am practicing my knots, building my strength, and continuing work on my Hōkūleʻa model—work that requires knowing all the ropes. I will be ma‘a to the wa‘a to the best of my ability, and someday, maybe I will get to go voyaging for real.

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