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Primus Stove, Lockheed Sirius "Tingmissartoq", Lindbergh

National Air and Space Museum
Brass round metal portable cooking stove with three legs and a valve to supply the fuel. The top of the stove, where the flame is located can detach from the body of the stove.

Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, purchased this Primus portable stove at Baker Lake, Canada, a remote trading post northwest of Hudson Bay, during their 1931 flight to the Orient. They also brought it on their 1933 survey flights across the North and South Atlantic.

Lodging and meals were provided at the Lindberghs' planned stops, but they still had to consider what they would eat in case of an emergency landing. They took enough canned rations to last them several weeks, but even that might not have been enough. They were traveling over vast expanses of uninhabited territory and there was no telling how long it would take to find the nearest outpost after an emergency landing. If their canned rations ran out, they would need a way to cook whatever food they could find (or catch with their fishing gear). For that reason, they took along this portable stove plus an aluminum pot and frying pan. They planned to use gasoline from the plane as fuel for the stove.

During their 1933 trip the Lindberghs shipped the stove home from Southampton, England. They no longer needed it since they would only be flying over populated areas and open ocean from then on. They also had to start lightening their airplane's load because they would need to take extra fuel on their flight across the South Atlantic Ocean. They also sent home supplies from Lisbon, Portugal and Bathurst, Gambia, until their plane was finally light enough for the Atlantic crossing.

A vacation flight with "no start or finish, no diplomatic or commercial significance, and no records to be sought." So Charles A. Lindbergh described the flight that he and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, were planning to make to the Orient in 1931. Their choice of route, however, showed the feasibility of using the great circle to reach the Far East.

The Lindberghs flew in a Lockheed Sirius low-wing monoplane, powered by a 680-hp Wright Cyclone. The Sirius had been designed in 1929 by John K. Northrop and Gerard Vultee, and this model was specially fitted with Edo floats, since most of the Lindberghs flight was to be over water.

Their route took them from North Haven, Maine, to Ottawa, Moose Factory, Churchill, Baker Lake, and Aklavik, all in Canada; Point Barrow, Shismaref, and Nome, Alaska; Petropavlosk. Siberia; and on over the Kurile Islands to Japan. After receiving an enthusiastic welcome in Tokyo, they flew to China. They landed on Lotus Lake near Nanking on September 19, thus completing the first flight from the West to the East by way of the North.

At Hankow, the Sirius, with the Lindberghs aboard, was being lowered into the Yangtze River from the British aircraft carrier Hermes, when the aircraft accidentally capsized. One of the wings was damaged when it hit a ship's cable, and the aircraft had to be returned to the United States for repairs.

Their next venture in the Sirius came as a result of the five countries' interest in the development of commercial air transport. In 1933 Pan American Airways, Imperial Airways of Great Britain, Lufthansa of Germany, KLM of Holland, and Air France undertook a cooperative study of possible Atlantic routes. Each was assigned the responsibility for one of the following areas: New Newfoundland to Europe via Greenland; Newfoundland via the great circle route to Ireland; Newfoundland southeast to the Azores and Lisbon; Miami, Bermuda, the Azores, and Lisbon; and across the South Atlantic from Natal, Brazil, to Cape Verde, Africa.

Pan American was to survey the Newfoundland to Europe via Greenland route. Ground survey and weather crews in Greenland were already hard at work when Lindbergh, Pan Am's technical advisor, took off from New York on July 9 in the rebuilt Lockheed Sirius, again accompanied by his wife, who would serve as copilot and radio operator. A Sperry artificial horizon and a directional gyro had been added to the instrument panel since the previous flight, and a new Wright Cyclone SR1820-F2 engine of 710 horsepower was installed. Lindbergh's plan was not to set up a particular route but to gather as much information as possible on the area to be covered.

The Jellinge, a Danish ship, was chartered by Pan Am to maintain radio contact with the Lindberghs in the Labrador-Greenland-Iceland area. The ship also delivered advance supplies for them to Halifax, Saint John's, Cartwright, Greenland, and Iceland.

Every possible space in the aircraft was utilized, including the wings and floats, which contained the gasoline tanks. There was plenty of emergency equipment in case the Lindberghs had to make a forced landing in the frozen wilderness.

From New York, the Lindberghs flew up the eastern border of Canada to Hopedale, Labrador. From Hopedale they made the first major overwater hop, 650 miles to Godthaab, Greenland, where the Sirius acquired its name-Tingmissartoq, which in Eskimo means "one who flies like a big bird."

After crisscrossing Greenland to Baffin Island and back, and then on to Iceland, the Lindberghs proceeded to the major cities of Europe and as far east as Moscow, down the west coast of Africa, and across the South Atlantic to South America, where they flew down the Amazon, and then north through Trinidad and Barbados and back to the United States.

They returned to New York on December 19, having traveled 30,000 miles to four continents and twenty-one countries. The information gained from the trip proved invaluable in planning commercial air transport routes for the North and South Atlantic.

The aircraft was in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City until 1955. The Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, then acquired it and transferred it to the Smithsonian in 1959.

How the 2016 MacArthur Genius Award Recipient Lauren Redniss Is Rethinking Biography

Smithsonian Magazine

Biography is one of the oldest forms of history. It serves a public function. Biography aims to record and commemorate—even celebrate—exemplary lives. In Renaissance Italy, biography was an adjunct to portrait painting as a way of recognition. Biography is a way of linking private with public lives. It shows how character develops in childhood and then reveals itself to the public as the individual steps into the world as an adult. Biography is constantly reinventing itself, adding dimension, depths and new approaches to the lives of emblematic people in past time.

At the National Portrait Gallery’s recently created Center for Visual Biography we are exploring new innovative approaches to telling lives and to support scholarship about portrait biography.

Artist and writer Lauren Redniss is among our advisors. Her visual biographies about the scientists Marie and Pierre Curie and Ziegfeld showgirl Doris Eaton Travis (who lived to be 106) are a delight to the eye, but also show a new way of revealing the contours and dimensions of past lives.

Redniss takes an oblique approach, finding meanings in the scraps and details of the lives of her subjects—postcards, snapshots, diary entries and shopping lists as well as other physical evidence. She is not interested in master narratives but idiosyncratic ways to visually enter the worlds of the people who interest her. Above all, she is fascinated with people who are survivors, people who endure and overcome.

For her imaginative engagement with past lives as well as the world around us, Redniss was recently awarded a MacArthur Grant, and while, in her modesty, she would eschew the label of genius, her work is an influential indicator toward new directions in visual biography.

In her new book, the acclaimed Thunder & Lightning: Weather, Past, Present and Future, she is intrigued by how people have coped with, survived, or failed in extreme weather situations. In the context of concern about global climate change, Redniss’ take on the history of weather is entertaining, but also salutary in what it tells us about human vulnerability to changes in the atmospheric membrane which supports life on earth.

We sat down recently for a discussion of her works and her process.

"When Doris Eaton was 14, she changed her name and lied about her age to skirt child protective services and dance in the Ziegfeld Follies."—Century Girl: 100 Years in the Life of Doris Eaton Travis (Lauren Redniss)

Tell me why you are interested biographically in people who overcome, who keep working against the odds and against various obstacles.

I think I am drawn to people who are undaunted by hardship. It puts things in perspective. I don’t usually think of my work as therapeutic, but in this case, it probably is. Doris Eaton survived heartbreak, economic peril, the murder of a sister, the death of five other siblings and her spouse, just for starters. Marie Curie was up against a patriarchal system loathe to acknowledge or reward her scientific research, working tirelessly with toxic substances that were slowly killing her. And she still managed to be a tremendous teacher, humanitarian and mother. Wait, what was I complaining about again?

Did you have other plans or dreams as a kid? Did you start out as an artist?

As a kid I would stay with my grandparents in Worcester, Massachusetts, and work the cash register at my grandfather’s grocery store. On slow days I made signs and “jewelry” for the customers out of rubber bands and garbage ties. I always made things as a kid—shoes, little wooden carvings of animals, playing cards. Doing things with my hands was automatic, like it is for a lot of kids. My career is partly based on the fact that I never passed out of this phase. At various points I’ve had other aspirations: for a while I studied to be a botanist and worked in a plant research lab. I drew fossil turtles at the American Museum of Natural History.

How did words become part of your visual work?  

Both my maternal grandparents could really spin a yarn. My grandfather was a private in Europe during World War II. At 20, he had never left Worcester, and suddenly there he was in Paris, in Alsace, in little towns in Italy, where a young girl poured him water from a glass pitcher with a streak of blue glaze— “a beautiful blue streak, deep blue, like the ocean,” where a blind woman gave him tomatoes, where he had to hustle to grab a mattress stuffed with sufficient straw to be able to sleep. At one point he was shot and left for dead in the forest. My grandmother worked in her father’s bakery, making jelly donuts and busting the milkman for drinking their cream. She remembered her town’s ghost stories. When I was in college, I started making tape recordings of these conversations. I had a sense that if I didn’t, their stories would be lost. This created a habit of interviewing people and recording oral histories. When I draw someone, the portrait seems incomplete without including their words, their voice. That’s how text crept into my work. 


Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout

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Image by Lauren Redniss. "In 1891, 24-year-old Marie Sklodowska moved from Warsaw to Paris, where she found work in the laboratory of physicist Pierre Curie."—Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout (original image)

Image by Lauren Redniss. "They fell in love, they were married, they took their honeymoon on bicycles. They also heralded the dawn of a new scientific era—ushering in the nuclear age."—Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, A Tale of Love and Fallout (original image)

When did you think about doing art books?

I used to draw and write “Op-Arts” for the New York Times Op Ed page. These were single-panel narratives that looked at issues in the news in unexpected ways. I loved doing these, but the turnaround time was tight, and space that any piece could occupy was limited. I often felt that the most interesting parts of a story were getting cut. I wanted a more expansive canvas, so I started working on books.

Do you have another practice where you just do images or write?

I often draw, paint, or make collages with no eye toward publication. I have ideas for future projects that are either just images or just writing, but who knows. I have some ideas for work that is a complete left turn from what I’ve been doing.

I see a little Edward Gorey in your drawings. And then there is the pastiche of mixed media element in the book on Doris Eaton. Did you have any particular artistic influences?

I’m usually drawn to work that was, at least originally, created for something other than a museum or gallery. I’m interested in medieval religious painting, and scrimshaw, film stills, and paper ephemera like cigarette cards or mid-century Japanese matchbooks. I’m drawn to the narrative power of these kinds of work, and also what is sometimes a raw or even awkward quality.


Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future

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Could you speak a bit about how you get interested in a topic and the process by which you start to conceptualize it as something you want to work on?

Whenever I am working a project, I begin to be haunted by some element that the project is missing. It could be aesthetic, a way of making the images or of using color, say. Or it could be conceptual, a question of subject matter. That missing element often becomes the seed of new work. Once I embark on a project, I’m reading, traveling, conducting interviews, drawing, taking photos, looking into archives. Certain themes begin to emerge. I create a “dummy book”: I bind a blank book and begin to collage in Xeroxes of my sketches. I print out sections of text and Scotch tape then to the pages. That way I can turn the pages and get a feel for the pacing and the book’s rhythms. The element of surprise is built into the form of a book: you don’t know what will be revealed when you turn a page. I have a chapter in my recent book called “Rain.” There are pages of rainy scenes, thunderstorms, and dark skies punctured by lightning bolts, descriptions of violent cyclones during Madagascar’s rainy season and interviews with lightning strike victims. Finally, the rain stops, you turn the page and, on a wordless spread, a brilliant rainbow arcs across the landscape. The drama of that image is created by its contrast to the preceding pages.

Marie Curie is such a Promethean story: she does all this incredible work and then dies from it. What drew you to the Curies, particularly Marie?

I liked the idea of creating a visual book about invisible forces. The Curies lives were animated by two invisible forces: radioactivity, a subject of their research, and love. They lived a great, and ultimately tragic, romance.

The weather, of course, is interesting because it is both serious and whimsical at the same time. Your drawings seemed to reflect that: youre establishing a mood in a way. Is that fair?

Weather is, as you say, unpredictable. In a world where we’ve come to expect a high degree of control over our daily lives, there remains this fundamental uncertainty.  That fascinates me. A storm, like a wild animal, can be simultaneously beautiful and terrifying.

I wanted Thunder & Lightning to be a beautiful object, a pleasure to hold and to read. I wanted to convey the many sensual experiences of weather—the disorientation of being lost in the fog, the uncanny stillness and quiet after a snowstorm, the unbeatable pleasure of a sunny day. But I wanted to face the terror, too. In the book, I also look at weather throughout history: as a force that has shaped religious belief, economics, warfare. Ultimately, Thunder & Lightning is my stealth climate change book. I’m worried about our planet.

Were you scared of lightning before writing the book? It freaks me out, as you know, now having read it.

I love lightning! At least, as long as I’m indoors. Maybe it’s because I don’t golf. 

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a book about an Apache tribe in Arizona. I’m depicting three generations of one Apache family. 

Redniss takes an oblique approach, finding meanings in the scraps and details of the lives of her subjects—postcards, snapshots, diary entries and shopping lists as well as other physical evidence. (John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

A Brief History of Sending a Letter to Santa

Smithsonian Magazine

“My pals say there is no Santa but I just have to believe in him,” writes 12-year-old Wilson Castile Jr., writing to the jolly fellow in 1939. Twelve might seem a bit old to believe in the portly resident of the North Pole. But Wilson, writing from his home in Annapolis, Missouri, seems worthy of extra sympathy. His explains in the letter that his father, a deputy sheriff, was shot and killed by gangsters and his new stepdad “is so mean he never buys me anything.”

Such sad or funny stories are not unusual when reading through Santa letters, going back to the 19th century. Notes sent to Santa are an unlikely lens through which to understand the past, offering a peek into the worries, desires and quirks of the times in which they were written. But as interesting as the children’s notes themselves are the changing ways adults have sought to answer them and their motivations for doing so.

Three new books shine a spotlight on mail addressed for Mr. Claus this season, telling the history of Santa letters from different angles: Letters to Santa , a selection of notes from 1930 to the present, selected from the thousands sent to the Santa Claus Museum in Santa Claus, Indiana (the city where Wilson Castile sent his letter); Dear Santa, which gathers earlier letters dated from 1870–1920; and The Santa Claus Man, my own book, which tells a true-crime tale of a Jazz Age huckster who abused a Santa letter–answering scheme to fill his own stockings with cash.


Letters to Santa Claus

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Together, the books illustrate how children’s requests and perceptions of Santa Claus changed over more than a century and a half. But they also reflect the durability and timelessness of the ritual, and how even when so much else about the world changes, children’s imaginations (and desire for toys) remain a constant.

This might seem surprising considering how the practice of Santa letters began. Early versions of Santa Claus tended to depict him as a disciplinarian. The first image of St. Nicholas in the United States, commissioned by the New-York Historical Society in 1810, showed him in ecclesiastical garb with a switch in hand next to a crying child, while the earliest known Santa picture-book shows him leaving a birch rod in a naughty child’s stocking, which he “Directs a Parent’s hand to use / When virtue’s path his sons refuse.”

The earliest Santa letters are similarly didactic, usually coming from St. Nicholas, rather than written to him. The minister Theodore Ledyard Cuyler recalled receiving “an autograph letter from Santa Claus, full of good counsels” during his childhood in 1820s western New York. In the 1850s, Fanny Longfellow (wife of the poet Henry Wadsworth) wrote her three children letters each Christmas that commented on their behavior over the previous year and how they could improve it.

“[Y]ou have picked up some naughty words which I hope you will throw away as you would sour or bitter fruit,” Santa explained in an 1853 letter. “Try to stop to think before you use any, and remember if no one else hears you God is always near.” In an era before childhood was celebrated as a distinct period of a person’s life, gratifying kids’ imaginations was less important than teaching them manners that would speed them toward adulthood.

Longfellow’s letter bore a return address of “Chimney Corner,” likely because she left it on the family hearth. During these early decades of Santa’s evolution in the U.S., not only did the saint travel in and out of homes via the chimney, so did his mail. Parents left their notes to children by the fireplace, or in one of the nearby stockings, and soon children put their replies to him there.

As postal workers began hand-delivering mail to urban centers during the Civil War, Americans began to view the mail as a pleasant surprise arriving at one’s door, rather than a burdensome errand. The Chicago Tribune captured this shift in the experience of receiving mail in an 1864 story, commenting that the addition of 35 deliverymen had changed the city’s whole understanding of postage. Instead of “the annoyance of having to carry letters to the office,” now, as each postman brought mail directly to residents’ doors, it transformed the mail carrier into “a genuine Santa Claus [visiting] households on his beat.” As the postal system became more formalized and efficient, partly in response to the explosion of mail during the Civil War, the cost of postage began dropping in the mid-1860s. Parents grew more comfortable with paying for stamps, and children began to view the postman as an actual conduit to the Christmas figure.

Pictures, poems, and illustrations of St. Nick— particularly Thomas Nast’s 1871 depiction in the widely read Harper’s Weekly magazine —sorting letters from “Good Children’s Parents” and “Naughty Children’s Parents”— helped spread the idea of sending Santa mail. Nast is also credited with popularizing the idea that Santa lived and worked in the North Pole — for example, with an 1866 illustration that named “Santaclausville, N.P.” as his address — giving kids a destination to send Santa’s mail. The use of the post office to contact St. Nick began as a particularly American phenomenon. Scottish children would shout their wishes up the chimney, while Europeans simply left out stockings or shoes for the gift bringer. 

Soon newspapers across the country were reporting the arrival of Santa letters to local postal departments, and then to their own offices (recognizing the emotional power of the letters, many papers published the children’s scrawls and even offered prizes for the “best” letters). “The little folks are getting interested about Christmas,” wrote a reporter for Columbia, South Carolina’s Daily Phoenix in December 1873. A correspondent for the Stark County Democrat, in Canton, Ohio, noted the following year: “One day last week two bright little children entered the Democrat office and wanted us to print letters to Santa Claus, from them.”

The gifts that kids requested in this period tended to be simple and practical. Dear Santa includes letters written during the 1870s that ask for gifts such as writing desks, prayer books, and “a stick of pomade” for “papa.” As society changed, the children started to ask for more fun items, such as candy, dolls, and roller skates.

But as the letters piled up, so did tensions about who should answer them. While some newspapers published letters sent to them and invited readers to respond, most missives sent to the post office ended up in the Dead Letter Office where they were destroyed, along with other mail sent to unreachable addresses. By the turn of the 20th century, the public and press began complaining that children’s wishes were treated with such neglect. Institutions ranging from charitable societies to the New York Times asked if an alternative could not be found.

After a few stopgap attempts, the Post Office Department (as the United States Postal Service was known until 1971), saw little other option but to permanently change the policy in 1913, allowing local charity groups to answer the letters, as long as they got the approval of the local postmaster. In Winchester, Kentucky, an organization began delivering Christmas goodies like nuts, fruits, candy—as well as firecrackers and roman candles—to letter writers. In the city of Santa Claus, Indiana, the city’s postmaster, James Martin, started answering the city’s large pile of Santa letters himself, then tapped local volunteers as the city’s name brought in ever-more mail for the man in the red suit.

But New York City had the most prominent letter-answering program. In 1913, customs broker John Gluck launched the Santa Claus Association, which coordinated the answering of tens of thousands of letters each year, matching children’s requests with individual New Yorkers who often hand-delivered the gifts to the letter writers. The effort earned accolades from the press, public and celebrities including John Barrymore and Mary Pickford. But each year, the group requested funds to cover ever-more gifts and postage costs, and even $300,000 to pay for a vast Santa Claus Building in Midtown Manhattan. Fifteen years after its initial launch, it was found that much of the money was unaccounted for and — as The Santa Claus Man tells in greater detail — Gluck was exposed as having pocketed much of the money (as much as several hundred thousand dollars in donations) for himself.

As a result, the Post Office Department revoked the Association’s right to receive Santa’s mail, and changed its policy nationally, restricting which groups could receive the letters. This led to the department’s establishment of Operation Santa Claus, at first an informal group of postal employees who pooled their own donations to send gifts in response to children’s pleas. The program evolved after being spotlighted in the climactic courtroom scene in Miracle on 34th Street in 1947, then enjoyed a significant boost when Johnny Carson made a practice of reading several letters each December on “The Tonight Show,” urging viewers to take part in the program.

“The range is incredible, from the very basic where they can’t afford to buy anything but a token, to the opposite end where they will invest in a school and redo a playground,” says Pete Fontana, the “Chief Elf Officer” in New York City, who has overseen the Operation Santa Program the past 17 years (though he will be retiring after this season). This program avoids fundraising by simply facilitating donations of willing donors. Individuals can volunteer to answer a Santa letter (or several), then it is up to that donor to buy the requested gift and bring it to the post office to send to the child. While the postal employees shuttle the gifts to children, it is the donors who pay for them. “It’s amazing how it can vary from almost nothing to the extreme,” says Fontana.

While post offices throughout the country managed most of these answering campaigns, the city of Santa Claus has taken its own approach. In 1976, a number of the local volunteers established Santa’s Elves, Inc., separate from the post office. In 2006, the Santa Claus Museum & Village opened, merging with the Elves. It is this organization that is behind the book Letters to Santa Claus, drawing on its archives of missives going back to the 1930s.

“It goes from very simple letters to far more expensive wish lists—you watch the progression from ‘I’d like some blocks’ to ‘I’d like a VCR’ and ‘I’d like an iPad,’” says Emily Weisner Thompson, the executive director of the museum who compiled Letters to Santa.

The letters reflect the changing wants of children, from spurs and a cowboy hat so the writer can “play Roy Rogers” to an Xbox with Assassins Creed 3, from a Shirley Temple doll to an American Girl doll. There are also some more unusual requests, such as a child in 1913 who asks Santa for a glass eye. One letter in Letters to Santa comes from an adult woman asking Santa to bring her a “tall, stately, well-bred…man of wealth with a steady income,” while in another, a boy negotiates with Santa to “trade you my sister when she comes from the stork for an elf.” A number of poorer children writing at the start of the 20th century even ask for coal—seeking warmth rather than viewing it as a punishment for naughtiness.

The letters tell a larger history as well. From World War I (a mother wrote to Gluck’s Santa Claus Association “We had to break up our home last winter, for my husband who is a longshoreman could not get work since the war began”) to the Great Depression; from 9/11 to Superstorm Sandy (a child writing in 2012 promises to “ask for much less this year so you can focus on the kids that are less fortunate than me”).

“I love the idea that we can see history through these letters,” says Thompson.

In more recent years, the process of answering Santa’s letters has been more regulated. In 2006, the Postmaster General formalized Operation Santa Claus nationally, putting in place a set of guidelines for all post offices taking part in the program. These include requiring donors to present a photo ID when they pick up Santa letters, and redacting the children’s full names and addresses—assigning each letter a number and storing the delivery info in a database that only the postal employees who actually deliver the gifts can access.

“It was different in every place it was done—some only had a letter-response campaign where they would send form letters out to the kids, there was no gift giving,” says Fontana. “In New York, we send only the gifts.”

It’s a much more modern approach to playing Santa than Fanny Longfellow or John Gluck could have imagined. Fontana hopes to see the program evolve further, scanning the letters and uploading them where people can fulfill children’s wishes from their laptop or smartphone. Programs such as and are already giving Santa the powerful tool of the Internet to help him accomplish his annual duties.

But what seems unlikely to change is kids’ continued eagerness to correspond with the jolly fellow, and adults’ continued enjoyment in playing him.

Alex Palmer will be discussing the history of Santa letters and signing copies of The Santa Claus Man at the National Postal Museum, on Saturday, December 12, from 3–5 p.m., as part of the annual holiday card workshop.

Image by Santa Claus Museum and Village. A letter to Santa from the 1950s (original image)

Image by Santa Claus Museum and Village. A letter to Santa from the 1930s (original image)

Image by Santa Claus Museum and Village. A letter to Santa from the 1970s. (original image)

Image by Santa Claus Museum and Village. A letter to Santa from the 1980s (original image)

Image by Santa Claus Museum and Village. A letter to Santa from 2008 (original image)


Dear Santa: Children's Christmas Letters and Wish Lists, 1870 - 1920

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How Scientists And Indigenous Groups Can Team Up to Protect Forests and Climate

Smithsonian Magazine

It was still morning when Javier Mateo-Vega arrived at the village meeting hall in Ipeti, Panama this past February. But the air was already hot and heavy, and the mood was tense.

The indigenous Emberá townspeople were taking advantage of Mateo-Vega's late arrival to air grievances. A man in the back complained about new houses that the government was building—sterile, zinc-roofed concrete shacks that were quickly wiping out the town’s traditional wood-and-thatched-palm huts. Others cursed the colonos—non-indigenous farmers and ranchers who were invading the community’s land from other parts of Panama. The village chiefs struggled to keep order.

Mateo-Vega, an ecologist with the Smithsonian's Tropical Research Institute, frowned with worry. The conflicts were worse than he had ever seen here. As he joined the gathering, a few men seemed to shift uncomfortably or look away, a strange occurrence in a village where he had worked for almost a decade—and where he was used to a warmer welcome. “You’re seeing the unraveling of a community,” he told me. 

The people of Ipeti (pronounced ee-pet-TEE) were at a crossroads. The Emberá have long lived in the forests of eastern Panama. They know these forests inside and out: They walk, hunt and fish in them; they harvest fruit and nuts from them; they cut trees for fuel wood and building materials. But ever since a group of Emberá migrated west and founded Ipeti a few decades ago, they have grappled with outside threats to their forest-based livelihoods.

Now they were facing an existential question: Would they hold on to their traditions, or head full-speed into modernity?  

Mateo-Vega hoped to help the villagers turn things around. He had driven three hours east from Panama City to lead a land-use planning workshop for this 700-person community. He knew the workshop wouldn't solve all of the townspeople's problems. But he believed he could help them in one concrete way: by giving them data they needed to make strategic decisions to protect their forests in the coming decades. 

On paper, the work was intended to conserve tropical forests, crucial yet increasingly vulnerable bastions in the fight against global climate change. But Mateo-Vega and his colleagues also hoped it would also do something arguably just as important: empower indigenous communities to take charge of their environmental future, and even reclaim their identity as forest people. 

“Imagine it’s 2055, and you’re in an airplane flying over your territory,” he said, as he took the floor before a group of around 50 community members. Women in brightly colored traditional skirts sat on folding chairs on one side of the pavilion; men in worn jeans, T-shirts and baseball caps sat or stood around the other. “What would you see?”

No response. That wasn't entirely surprising: The townspeople had been arguing for two hours, and it was hot. Plus, with more immediate problems facing them, 2055 felt abstract and far-off. 

Behind Mateo-Vega, community leaders held two large maps that he had brought, based on data that community members had provided in a workshop the previous summer. One depicted a dystopian future in which Ipeti’s forests are almost all cleared for farmland. The other rendered a brighter outlook, in which the community was able to bring the forest back.

“This is your dream,” he said, pointing to the second map. 

Still nothing. Mateo-Vega paced the concrete floor in his Teva sandals, khaki field pants, purple polo shirt and Smithsonian ID badge. Even after years of working here, he was an obvious outsider: a tall, muscular, light-skinned Costa Rican with short, slicked-back hair.  

He tried a different tactic: “What are the Emberá without their forests?”

For a few seconds, the crowd was uncomfortably silent. Then one young man yelled out, “Nothing! Without our forests, we’re not Emberá!”

Mateo-Vega's face relaxed. Now they were starting to make progress.

In Ipeti, Panama, Sara Omi (left), Cándido Mezúa (center) and Mateo-Vega explore potential futures for the Emberá's forests. (Gabriel Popkin)

To say that the history of scientists working in indigenous territories is fraught would be an understatement. Look through the literature and you'll find stories of researchers setting their own agendas, collecting and publishing data without consent, and failing to include community members as collaborators or coauthors on studies. 

“The dominant narrative is that indigenous people are not co-thinkers,” says Kim TallBear, an anthropologist at the University of Alberta who has studied scientist-indigenous relations.

In the context of this troubled history, Mateo-Vega's work could be the beginnings of a counter-narrative. In 2008, he began working in Ipeti as the director of a project to build communities’ forest restoration capacity. In 2012 he joined the research group of Catherine Potvin, an ecologist with the Smithsonian Institution and McGill University in Montreal who has paved the way for more collaborative research with the Emberá.

Over the years, Mateo-Vega says he and the people of Ipeti have come to consider each other adopted family. As he walks down the town’s main street, the villagers give him hugs and high-fives, and show off hand-carved wooden animals and hand-woven baskets. They ask about his wife, an American whom he lives with in Panama City, and his 12-year-old son, who lives in Costa Rica. “I would come here even if I wasn’t doing research,” Mateo-Vega says.

Such relationships have laid the foundation for a collaboration with the Emberá that goes longer and deeper than almost any other scientist-indigenous community partnership anywhere. In return, Mateo-Vega has gained unprecedented access to nearly unstudied forests—and, perhaps more importantly, to the Emberá themselves. They have opened their homes to him, mediated with community elders and helped design and carry out complex research projects. 

"You have to break bread with them, walk their forests with them, stay in their houses, play with their children and go to their funerals,” he says. “If you don’t like doing this stuff, you’re not going to do well here.”

Mateo-Vega wants to change how science is done, but he's also hoping to do more. He aims to help bring indigenous communities into a climate change conversation that they have mostly watched from the margins. As the world’s governments, conservation organizations and indigenous communities struggle to protect forests and fight climate change, Mateo-Vega hopes to build a powerful model for others to follow.

Emberá women at a land use planning meeting led by Mateo-Vega in February. (Gabriel Popkin)

The story begins in the mid 1990s, when Potvin, Mateo-Vega's advisor, ventured for the first time to the Darién. She had heard that the remote, roadless Darién region in far eastern Panama—the Emberás’ homeland, and where most of the roughly 30,000 group members still live—nurtured a biologically spectacular forest, and she wanted to see it for herself. Getting there required a flight from Panama City and 14 hours in a dugout canoe.

“You’re very tired at the end. Your butt really hurts,” she says. 

Finally, she arrived at a small village of thatched-roof huts. Villagers still spoke the Emberá language and maintained traditional practices, including adorning themselves from head to toe with paint made from a native fruit called jagua. Potvin immediately knew that she wanted to work with there. But rather than set her own research agenda, she decided to ask community leaders what research projects would help them.

“These people are immensely intelligent,” says Potvin, who is short with straight blonde hair, and whose English is heavily inflected with a French Canadian accent. “They don’t need me to tell them what to do.”

She learned that the community relied on chunga, a spiny palm whose leaves the villagers wove into baskets. As the baskets became increasingly popular with tourists, overharvesting began depleting chunga from the forest. To help the communities learn how to grow the palms themselves, Potvin brought on Rogelio Cansari, an Emberá from the Darién who had received a degree in anthropology from Texas A&M University, as a graduate student.

The pair collected seeds from the few remaining chunga plants they could find, planted them in experimental plots and determined under what conditions they grow best. Then, they worked with community members to establish plantations to supply their growing basket trade.

Crucially, they also included indigenous leaders as coauthors on scientific papers. “Catherine came with the very innovative idea of giving the opportunity to indigenous people to be part of scientific knowledge,” says Cansari, who is now studying for a PhD in anthropology at the University of Copenhagen. “It’s been very helpful for my people.” The researchers translated their papers into Spanish and presented them at community meetings, so that villagers gained access to the data and learned what was being published about them in the scientific literature.

Though she is not specifically familiar with Potvin’s work, TallBear says that the ecologist’s approach goes beyond what even most collaboration-minded scientists are willing to do. “It’s not an easy thing to do. It takes time and it slows down your time to publication,” she says. “Most people who bill themselves as doing collaborative research are not going that far.” 

Traditional thatched-roof huts and drying clothes at an Emberá community in the Darién. (Courtesy Javier Mateo-Vega)

While in Darién, Potvin heard that some Emberá had migrated out of the region and settled in Ipeti. Intrigued, she visited the town herself in 1996. She found a community that was carrying on some traditions, such as living in thatched-roof houses, but that was also assimilating into mainstream Panamanian society. Traditional body painting and music had all but disappeared, and Spanish was replacing the Emberá language. 

It wasn’t every day that a scientist from a prestigious university visited Ipeti, which at that time was a seven-hour drive from Panama City over a largely unpaved road. When Bonarge Pacheco—an Emberá and Ipeti’s chief at the time—heard that Potvin was in town, he put on his best clothes and joined her for dinner.

Despite previous experiences with scientists who had gathered data in Ipeti but never returned results, Bonarge says that he was won over by Potvin. “I perceived that she was a sincere person, and I had heard about her work elsewhere,” he says. They talked until midnight, and by the next day they had a plan to collaborate.

Many of the forests surrounding Ipeti had been cleared both by villagers and invading colonos, and were in rough shape. Villagers had trouble finding not only chunga, but also several types of palm needed to continue building their traditional houses—round, open-sided structures with air-permeable floors and thatched roofs that stay cool even in Panama’s punishing midday heat. As a result, community members were starting to build new houses using non-traditional materials like wood planks and sheet metal.

Potvin worked with the community to study and grow four species of palm: chunga, wagaragiwa and sabal. That work paid off: With palms growing and providing materials, Ipeti was able to continue their traditional house-building. The study also had wider-reaching effects. Villagers went back to playing Emberá music—which relies on flutes made from a bamboo that Potvin also helped them grow—and revived their important cultural tradition of body-painting. 

Potvin even got herself painted. Through her years of collaboration with the Emberá, she says she felt she had earned it. “I know now there are a lot of discourses about reappropriation of these things, and it’s quite controversial,” she says. “I just find it’s beautiful.”

Catherine Potvin, right, shows a carbon map to Evelio Jiménez and community members of the Guna Comarca of Madungandi, in eastern Panama in 2013.

Around this time, high-level politicians and environmentalists began eyeing tropical forests like the Darién as part of global efforts to combat climate change. At the 2005 UN climate conference in Montreal, a program emerged for reducing carbon emissions from burning or clearing of standing forests, which accounts for 10 to 15 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions. The program was christened with the acronym REDD, which stands for “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.”

The basic idea is simple: Trees are roughly half carbon by mass, and growing trees devour and store carbon dioxide, the gas responsible for most human-caused climate change. To provide an incentive to keep forests standing, climate negotiators envisioned a carbon market through which wealthy countries responsible for most carbon emissions could pay poorer countries to protect forests. While no one thought such a scheme could prevent climate change, it seemed like a good strategy to at least slow it down.

Getting REDD+ (the ‘+’ was added in 2007 to include improved forest management) to work on the ground, however, has been anything but simple. Tropical forests grow in dozens of mostly poor countries, whose governments often lack the will or ability to protect them from the myriad threats they face: illegal logging, mining, cattle ranching, farming and more. A widely cited 2013 analysis of satellite data collected between 2000 and 2012 found that forested areas shrank in nearly every tropical country besides Brazil, often by staggeringly large amounts.

Moreover, few developing-world governments are equipped to make the systematic measurements needed to verify that additional carbon is really being sequestered. “REDD+ is frequently presented as a climate success story, partly because the idea looks so simple and appealing,” wrote economist Arild Angelsen and biologist Louis Verchot of the Center for International Forestry Research in Indonesia in 2015. But outside of Brazil, “there are few stories of substantial early progress," the authors wrote.

Then there is the fact that indigenous communities often have uneasy relationships with their national governments, and have rarely been included in discussions where the mechanics of REDD+ were developed. As a result, they are wary of carbon-focused schemes that might restrict what they can do in their forests.

This may be starting to change. At the 2015 UN climate conference in Paris, a coalition of indigenous groups and scientists released a report pointing out that more than a fifth of the world’s tropical forest carbon is in indigenous territories, and calling for stronger land rights and inclusion of indigenous people in climate negotiations. Research supports this argument: A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that recognizing the rights of indigenous people in the Peruvian Amazon has helped protect forests there.

But rarely have indigenous groups received recognition or compensation for protecting their forests. The 2015 Paris agreement mentions indigenous peoples in several places, but does not guarantee them a role in countries’ climate action plans.

“Governments are like cash machines going click, click, click, click, click—they see this green fund as a great source of new funding,” said Cándido Mezúa, an Emberá leader from the Darién and a coauthor on the 2015 report. “To really achieve the protection of forests, the only way is to recognize the rights of people in the forests and to title our lands.”

Ipeti's forests. (Gabriel Popkin)

Today, Potvin and Mateo-Vega see their work as a case study in how science could support the kind of protection Mezúa envisions. More than half of the country’s primary forests are in indigenous territories, according to an analysis by Potvin’s group. But before the UN talks, they had never had a reason to think about how much carbon their forests hold. As Cansari puts it: “Carbon is not something that indigenous people can touch.”

Potvin, who attended the climate talks as a negotiator for Panama, told her Emberá contacts about the carbon market discussions. Fearing being left out, community leaders asked her to help them measure how much carbon their forests contained. She agreed. Starting in Ipeti, she trained community members to record the diameters of trees in community-managed forest, agroforestry plots (plantings of fruit- and materials-providing trees) and cow pasture. They then used standardized equations and statistical methods to convert individual tree data into estimates of carbon stored in a given area.

They found that Ipeti’s forests contained about twice as much carbon per area as agroforestry plots, whereas the pastures, unsurprisingly, contained little carbon. Because the study was the first to quantify the carbon stored in Ipeti’s forest, it provided a crucial foundation for the community to explore getting involved in the emerging carbon market.

Equally important was the attention the study brought to Ipeti’s remaining forests, says Pacheco. At the rate Ipeti residents and colonos were clearing trees, half the remaining forest would be gone within a decade, the researchers found. Community members took note and dramatically slowed the rate at which they cleared forests for agriculture. As a result, about half their territory remains forested today—in contrast to Piriati, a neighboring Emberá community where Potvin did not work, and which eventually lost all of its forest.

“We call it the Potvin effect,” Pacheco says.

Mateo-Vega stands at the base of a cuipo tree in the forests of Ipeti. (Gabriel Popkin)

A few years later, Potvin, Mateo-Vega and Emberá leaders began planning a forest carbon measuring campaign in the Darién, with support from the Environmental Defense Fund and the World Bank. The challenges would be much greater than in Ipeti—field teams would need to trek in equipment by foot or canoe for stays lasting weeks, and they would need protection from the guerrilla warfare in neighboring Colombia, which threatened to spill across the border. The mutual trust Potvin and Mateo-Vega had spent years building would be essential. 

Mateo-Vega hired an Emberá assistant, Lupita Omi, whom he knew from working in Ipeti, to arrange meetings with village chiefs. (The two have become so close they now call each other hermanito and hermanita—Spanish for “little brother” and “little sister”.) In 38 separate meetings, the pair explained their project’s goals and how the collected data would benefit communities. Deliberations could last up to five hours, because community members were wary of any initiative that carried even a whiff of REDD+.

“The communities really listened carefully to every word,” Omi says. “They realized it could affect their livelihoods and their territories.” In the end, every community accepted the project.

Mateo-Vega then hired and trained a crew of forest technicians from Darién and Ipeti, and plunged into the forest. They set up camp, sent hunters out after monkey or iguana for the night’s dinner, and got to work staking out square plots 100 meters (slightly longer than a football field) on a side and measuring the height and circumference of every tree larger than 50 centimeters in diameter.

The work was arduous. The heat could be brutal, and rainy season downpours turned forest soil into mud. Trails had to be cut from the dense understory with machetes, pit vipers lurked everywhere and nasty spines that grow on many plants could easily puncture boots and skin. The threat of violence was never far from the team’s thoughts, although they were never attacked. On one outing, a canoe carrying members of the security team and their ammunition capsized in a rapid, and they had to abandon the trip, even though it meant leaving two remote forest types unmeasured.

But for their efforts, Mateo-Vega and his crew got access to forests that virtually no scientists had ever studied. They discovered a tree that shattered the record for the largest in Panama. The crew’s measurements revealed that some of its forests were far more carbon-rich and replete with biological diversity than anyone had documented.

Mateo-Vega has come to believe that the underappreciated Darién—one 19th-century explorer described it as a “green hell”—deserves to be ranked among the world’s great forest regions. “In our opinion it’s the Amazon of Central America,” he says. On the last day of his last field trip, he saw a jaguar swimming across a river—a first for him in his 35 years working in the rainforest. He still dreams of going back.

In addition to collecting valuable data, Mateo-Vega’s team proved a larger point: that community members with proper training but no prior science background could take forest measurements just as well as scientists. And they could do it at a fraction of the cost. Similar success stories from collaborations elsewhere suggest REDD+ could be widely implemented and monitored directly by communities that own much of the world’s forests.

“When trained and when incentivized … they can collect as high-quality data as anybody else,” says Wayne Walker, an ecologist at the Woods Hole Research Center who led a community-based carbon measuring project in the Amazon. 

Potvin has published guidelines for such collaborative research on the McGill website. Other hints are also emerging that science may be shedding its colonial heritage. In March, the San people of South Africa issued what is thought to be the first code of research ethics put together by indigenous people in Africa. First Nations peoples of Canada and Aborigines in Australia have developed similar codes. 

Mateo-Vega and his collaborators recently added their own contribution to this growing literature, publishing their methods and results in the journal Ecosphere. Emberá communities are now prepared to collect data to support REDD+ or any other future carbon compensation scheme, they wrote.

“We worked ourselves out of a job—which was the plan,” Mateo-Vega says.

Armed with data, the Emberá communities set about figuring out the next step: how to use it. In Ipeti and Piriati, which only received formal title to their lands in 2015, the consensus was a series of land use planning workshops to map out how land use decisions would affect their forests. 

The workshops have been “an awakening” for the communities, Mateo-Vega says. He recalls one elder in Piriati crying as he realized his daughters had never seen the forest or eaten bush meat—the native game animals Emberá people have traditionally hunted. “They realize they have gotten off track,” he says.

Back at the land use meeting in Ipeti, as Mateo-Vega continued to explain the data visualized by his maps, his audience had begun to open up. Community members were reflecting on what they had lost as the forest had disappeared. “Before, we ate peccary and deer,” one man said. “Now we have to have park rangers.”

Another lamented that they were eating introduced tilapia, rather than native wacuco fish that used to thrive in streams protected by forests. “I’m Emberá; I want to live like an Emberá,” he said.

By the end of the meeting, community members were in agreement: They needed to bring back the forest. But given that farming often brings in quicker—and much-needed—profits, how exactly they would do this remained to be figured out.

After the crowd dispersed, Mateo-Vega huddled with community leaders. They were contemplating a concept they called Emberá-REDD. They would consider participating in the UN program, but on their own terms, not ones cooked up in Panama City or Washington, D.C.

Young people could be employed to measure carbon and patrol the territory to ensure colonos did not destroy their forests, one leader suggested. REDD+ would thus be not just about trees and carbon, but about jobs and education—and about food security and cultural preservation.

“We need to protect the forests for our own reasons,” said Mezúa.

The forest would come back. The communities would go back to eating bush meat and gathering medicinal plants. They would build their traditional houses again.

What about the ugly government-built houses, Mateo-Vega asked.

“Maybe they’ll be used for storage,” said Sara Omi, Lupita’s sister and head of the Emberá’s regional congress.

Mateo-Vega liked what he heard. But he and Potvin are quick to emphasize that their job is not to choose whether or not the communities ultimately accept REDD+, or make any other decision for them. Rather, it is to empower communities to make their own informed choices.

They acknowledge that this is not always the easiest or quickest or most glamorous way to do science. But it’s the right way. “It’s a partnership and a relationship of equality,” Potvin says. “I think of it as decolonization.”

Azar Nafisi on Why the Arts and Humanities Are Critical to the American Vision

Smithsonian Magazine

Born in Tehran as the daughter of the mayor, educated in Switzerland, with a PhD from the University of Oklahoma and a fellowship at Oxford, Azar Nafisi returned to Iran to teach literature in the late 1980s just as the Islamic revolution was clamping down.

Fired for refusing to wear a headscarf, she conducted study groups at her home with a handful of students looking at some of her favorite writing. A book about that experience, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books (2003), became an international sensation, with two years on U.S. bestseller lists and translated into 32 languages.

It also earned Nafisi a number of awards and honors, the latest of which comes this week with the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Creativity Laureate in the Humanities and Public Service from the Smithsonian Associates and Creativity Foundation.

The medal, which has previously gone to such varied recipients as Yo-Yo Ma, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Meryl Streep, Jules Feiffer and Mark Morris, will be presented this weekend. A public interview with the author is set for 7 p.m. Friday, April 10, at the Smithsonian’s S. Dillon Ripley Center on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Nafisi, who transplanted to the United States in 1997, becoming a citizen in 2008, is a fellow at John Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Her latest book, The Republic of Imagination, extends her previous theme, combining deep reading of some of literature’s classic texts with impassioned personal narrative. She spoke with about her work and the honor this week.

Was Benjamin Franklin, namesake of this award, a particular hero of yours?

Benjamin Franklin I love. I love that his rather ‘ordinary’ appearance belies all the different aspects of him. Franklin for me was one of the best examples of curiosity and empathy. He did not differentiate between the curiosity and creativity that goes into science and wanting to know about the world, with the desire to know about the arts and humanities. He knew it was not separate, as many of our leaders seem to think today; that both go into the human spirit. I love that he looks so mischievous, doesn’t he? Like he has something in his pocket that he wants to spring on us.

This is a theme in some of your works: The focus on science and technology to the exclusion of literature and the arts.

Yes, it seems that so many leaders have the wrong view of humanities and science. You look at the Smithsonian Institution and you see it is the jewel in America’s eye for the fact it doesn’t segregate the kind of passion and precision that goes into science with that that goes into the arts; that they have these museums of natural history and American history right next to the art gallery and the Freer gallery. The Smithsonian celebrates the best achievements under one rubric.

What some of the leaders today do not understand is the crucial importance of humanities to our lives as a pragmatic matter. They don’t see the relationship between the scientific and the artistic; that engineering and technology would be shorn of any new ideas without the humanities. I think they should take another look at the Einstein statue in front of the National Academy of Sciences. He said: "Knowledge is limited, but imagination encircles the world."


The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books

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Yet, you point out in The Republic of Imagination that so many curriculums have reduced arts and humanities teaching in favor of science or technology only.

This is so heartbreaking to me. It’s a matter I feel touches me not only in what I do as writer and reader, but also as an immigrant. In other parts of the world, including the one I am from, people are daily jailed and harassed for writing or reading a book, for drawing a painting that is not according to the government standards. You see people all over the world who are dying to go to museums for free, to enjoy music, and poetry, and literature, and now we’re depriving our schools of that.

One of the things the founders were fascinated with—Washington talks about the fact that they were the ones who were going to make Enlightenment ideas concrete. How can our children survive this world without imaginative knowledge? I mean, can you imagine anyone being a responsible citizen without knowing about the history and culture of this country, never mind the world?

You learned about the literature of America at an early age?

For me it began at home. At our home, the thing that we respected, my parents and my family as a whole, what they always focused on was education and especially for us, it was literature. So I was used to my father telling me stories since I was conscious of being a human being. I was 3-and-a-half or so. He would tell me bedtime stories and he would tell me stories from all over the world, not just from Iran. The point about Iran, both at that time and right now as we speak, is that it was a very cosmopolitan country. At least the parts of it where I grew up, and now because people have been deprived of that culture, they are striving for it much more. The films I saw along with millions of other kids, came from all over the world.

Why did you focus so intently on American literature?

One reason was my studies, my area of concentration was American lit. But also in those days, America, if you remember, in Iran was the Great Satan. And people always pay attention to the Great Satan.

There was this way of looking at America that was all very political, and all very ideological. And the way I show my students what this America was was through books. These books represented the best that America had to offer, but also offered a genuine and sincere critique of America, not like the rabid kind of criticism that the Islamic regime was feeding them, but a serious one.

I wanted my students to understand the world and understand America through the best that it had to offer and connect to that, and not just through politics. I didn’t want them to know America just through the people who were ruling over America at that time or what the Iranian television told them.


Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

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Were you surprised Reading Lolita in Tehran was such a bestseller?

It shocked me to tell you the truth. Most of my friends and some of my colleagues kept telling me that this book is really going to do poorly, because they said,  ‘Everyone is focused on Iraq, and no one is going to be reading about Iran.’ And: ‘You are writing about writers that nobody cares about anymore.’ But I couldn’t help it. This is what I wanted to write about.

So, apart from my editors, who always believed in the book, in terms of it always selling well, I never for one moment believed—even when it went on the bestseller list—I still refused to acknowledge it.

A part of the reason I think the book became a success was that until then people had heard very little, if anything, about ordinary Iranian people, and the view of Iran since hostage taking was such a negative one. It was all about the regime. I think people all around the world, including in this country, they connected to these girls, they connected to these students, I think. They saw they had much more in common, than the way Iran was presented.

The second reason was literature. I really did not believe how much imagination connects you to people; that someone who loved Henry James or Jane Austin would want to share it, now that this book was out.

How did that success change your life or your direction?

I think it’s very difficult to take success of yourself too seriously and I really mean it. Sometimes I lose perspective because I really don’t believe I have achieved much, or that this book’s success should change me in an essential way. I always felt passionate about these things. I don’t remember a time where I was not passionate about reading and writing and, later on when I finished college, teaching. What it did for me, for which I’m very grateful, was two things. One, it gave me space to be able to write. When I was in Iran, my first book came out under severe censorship, and then it was never allowed to be published again. So here I very much appreciated the fact that I could tell any thing I wanted, and now because of this book’s success, people would want me to write more.

The most valuable thing, is that through my books, I have been connected to so many people.

That’s a theme of your books as well: How literature makes you feel less lonely, a way to connect to the world even when you’re by yourself.

Yes, you know there is a great quote from James Baldwin where he talks about the fact that you feel really lonely and miserable until you read about someone who lived 100 years before you did called Dostoyevsky. Then he says that all your misery and loneliness is alleviated when you realize that someone else has felt the same way you have. That quotation from Baldwin is very essential to my book, because he continues on to say: "Art would not be important if life were not important, and life is important."

So he connects art and life to one another, which is what I always want to tell our policymakers who are constantly cutting budgets for arts and humanities. Arts and humanities endured before you and I, and they will endure after you and I. And the reason they endure is because they matter to life.

You’ve been a U. S. citizen for a while. Do you feel like an American citizen now or do you feel like you are between two countries?

One of the great things about becoming an American citizen is that you can bring your past with you. Like, for example, I don’t feel that I leave behind those aspects of Iran that have come so close and become part of my DNA, because now I’m not just an American. I’m an Iranian-American.

I think this is what keeps America so vibrant and alive. People constantly coming to this country, and bringing with them their alternative ways of looking at America and thereby changing it. And this constant change is what keeps America healthy. Unfortunately, right now we are in a period of crisis, which is not just political or economic, it’s a crisis of vision. If one day we decided to have an America that is homogeneously one way or another, then I think I would feel homeless again.

There is a cash prize with this award, will that afford you to do anything special that you’ve wanted to do?

Right now, there’s this project in my mind which I hope will come to fruition which is about trying to create a forum where young people, and especially young people in community colleges and in public high schools, whose access to ideas and information has been cut by underfunding and other reasons, to reach out to them. I hope that maybe I can use my award money toward something that will be fruitful like that.

Azar Nifisi is the recipient of the 2015 Benjamin Franklin Creativity Award.

Should We Hate Poetry?

Smithsonian Magazine

Poet and novelist Ben Lerner’s little book The Hatred of Poetry, currently receiving some critical notice beyond the world of verse, is an entertaining cultural polemic that begins in certitude—Hatred—and concludes in confusion. Lerner’s confusion derives from the de-centered world of poetry itself, which is too capacious and slippery to be grasped unless the analyst is ruthlessly elitist, which Lerner, thankfully, is not.

The Hatred of Poetry is a wonderful title, guaranteed to draw attention and a marketing dream in the poetry community, but it misdiagnoses the condition of poetry. People do not hate poetry, although many are indifferent to it, or ignore it, or are frustrated by it. Lerner, whose novels include Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04, is making a rhetorical claim with a conceit that he can’t support in his argument.

Very few of the other commentators Lerner cites share the philosopher’s hatred or meet the standard set by Lerner’s title. Indeed, Lerner rather undermines his own case, in the first comment that he cites on poetry, which is Marianne Moore’s “I, too, dislike it.”

Well, dislike is not hatred. Like most of us, Moore found a lot not to like about poetry, but she wanted it to be better—and she wanted an audience that was better placed to make judgments and distinctions about verse.

Rather, than hating it, I would argue that people love poetry too much. Because people want so much from poetry and because so many people have conflicting demands of poetry, the result is a continual sense of disappointment that poetry hasn’t lived up to our expectations. Like helicopter parents, we can’t just let poetry be. We always have to be poking and prodding it, setting schedules and agendas, taking its temperature and making sure it lives up to the great expectations we have for it. As with children, though, we seem fated to be continually worried about poetry—and always, at best, mildly disappointed at how it has turned out.


The Hatred of Poetry

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Lerner’s intention is an intervention or an annotation on the “state of poetry,” not a comprehensive or extended critical overview. It is an essay, more than a book, and is akin to the kind of pamphlet literature that dominated the public and political life well into the 19th century as printing became cheap and the culture was becoming democratized—Tom Paine’s political pamphlet Common Sense is an outstanding example.

The Hatred of Poetry’s charm comes from its glancing diffidence, a refusal of the hard-and-fast dictates that are the usual stock in trade of the cultural critic. More broadly, The Hatred of Poetry is part of the tradition of the jeremiad—a long list of woes about poetry that goes back to Plato and Socrates and which surfaces regularly in the Anglo-American literary world.

The staples of these jeremiads are twofold. First, the argument goes, most poetry simply isn’t any good. Most poets should stop writing and most journals and publishing houses should stop publishing. This is the high cultural, not to say elitist, critique of poetry: unless you’re Keats, you just shouldn’t write anything at all. Which rather begs the question of how you know you’re Keats until you have written and exposed your writing to public scrutiny.  

This argument is a perennial, and is usually propounded by people with some degree of status as literary arbiters and who feel their place is under threat from the mob. It’s an argument that need not be taken too seriously simply because it isn’t going to happen. In popular political and cultural democracies, people can do what they damn well please, including writing poetry, despite what anyone tells them not to do.

Also, there is no Gresham’s Law of bad poetry driving out good; there were plenty of bad poets writing at the same time as Keats, their work just doesn’t survive.

Robert Lowell (1917-1977) (Judith Aronson 1977, printed c. 1993, NPG)

The second argument, similar to the first but with a slightly different emphasis, is that poetry is too personal, that poets are concerned only with their own voice, and inadequately link their personal utterance with the wider condition of society and humankind; poetry is solipsistic, in other words, Or, in the words of W.H. Auden “it makes nothing happen,” existing only in the valley of its saying.

These contemporary criticisms are the opposite of the original, and still most powerful, attack on poetry, which was Plato’s.

For Plato, poetry made too much happen. It excited the imagination of the public leading citizens to indulge in fantasy and wish fulfillment not reality. Poetry was dangerous. It was precisely because poetry wasn’t hated that Plato feared it.

To return to Marianne Moore, she wanted us to be self-conscious readers not sycophantic ones who simply accept poetry’s implicit claim on our emotions and thoughts. It’s the question of self-consciousness that is the most interesting part of Lerner’s book. Samuel Coleridge wrote that genius is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in your head at the same time and it is this problem that bedevils Lerner. Is poetry possible at all, he asks? 

In particular, Lerner asks, will there always be an unbridgeable gap between the poet’s conception of the poem and the poem itself as s/he writes it? And as the public receives it?

Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) (Rollie McKenna, 1959, printed later, NPG)

Poetry is so overloaded by our expectations that no poem can possibly live up to them; every poem is, to greater or lesser extent, a failure because it cannot achieve the Platonic Ideal of the poem. Lerner has some acute remarks about how Keats and Emily Dickinson created new forms precisely because they were so antipathetic to how poetry was being written in their time: “The hatred of poetry is internal to the art, because it is the task of the poet and poetry reader to use the heat of that hatred to burn the actual off the virtual like fog.”

Hatred is Lerner’s word and he is entitled to it. I suspect he uses it because what he really means is Love, a word that is not astringent and cleansing enough for him; he writes:

Thus hating poems can either be a way of negatively expressing poetry as an ideal—a way of expressing our desire to exercise such imaginative capacities, to reconstitute the social world—or it can be a defensive rage against the mere suggestion that another world, another measure of value, is possible.

Lerner’s real enemy is the complacency of people who don’t think and feel as deeply as he does, who don’t burn with his own “hard, gemlike flame,” to use Victorian aesthete Walter Pater’s phrase, a flame that burns away all the dross.

I am not advocating for the mediocrity of culture or that we tolerate the shoddy when I say that Lerner’s conclusion, however admirable in the abstract, is simply untenable and impractical. In the first place, most of life is mediocre and shoddy, so there’s that to factor in. The other thing is that the dilemma he highlights—the inability to realize the ideal of poetry in the written poetry itself—is important theoretically or philosophically but completely unimportant in terms of how life is lived, especially in the work we do.


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There is such a thing as too much self-consciousness, and Lerner has it. The point is to reach Coleridge’s toleration for two contradictory things. In physics, the Newtonian world of appearance coexists with the unknowability of the quantum world—a contradiction that doesn’t affect our ability to get around in real life. So in poetry we should accept the impossibility of the poem by writing poems.

If we can’t attain Coleridge’s Zen-like balance, do what Emerson suggested and take drugs or alcohol to eliminate the gap between what we want to say and what we can say given the limits of form, history, language, privilege and all the other restrictions that supposedly make writing impossible. Lerner comes back again and again to Whitman because he basically can’t understand how Whitman can embody the contradictions that he celebrated both in his own person and in the irreconcilability of the American individual with American society. My suggestion is that Whitman simply didn’t think about these things: “So I contradict myself.”  

That blithe “So” is so dismissive. . . so Whitmanesque. He was too busy writing poetry that explored the very thing that bothers Lerner: the irreconcilability of opposites.

I think that The Hatred of Poetry will be salutary if the conceit of Lerner’s title draws people in and makes people think about the demands that we place on poetry. For instance, Lerner is sharp on the relationship between poetry and politics as in how some critics privilege “great white male poets” like Robert Lowell as universal while they argue that Sylvia Plath speaks only for a narrow segment of women. More generally, we need to think about how we reflexively use Poetry (with a capital “P”, of course) as a substitute for real human feeling and real engagement with the world.

It’s not that people hate poetry. It’s that people expect and demand too much from it.

It is the highest form of utterance in our society, and it can’t bear the weight of what we have invested in it. We use poetry when words fail us.

But for the poets themselves, the task is simple. Just write poems. There’s no way around it. In the fallen world in which we live, there’s no way out of the tasks that the world demands of us. If we are inadequate to those tasks, why would you expect anything else? We might and should expect better, of course, not for any other reason but for the intrinsic pleasure of making something out of the ordinary, maybe not a Grecian urn but just. . .something better.

This Is Why Taking Fish Medicine Is Truly a Bad Idea

Smithsonian Magazine

Earlier this month, a Tweet from author Rachel Sharp alerted the Internet to a disturbing trend: Some people were resorting to taking fish antibiotics to cure their ailments. Yes, fish antibiotics. Sharp’s Tweet, which quickly went viral, included a screenshot of several thinly veiled Amazon reviews left by humans who were clearly using the aquatic pet medicine Moxifish on themselves.

Naturally, the Internet was appalled. But few stopped to ask: what’s actually so wrong with taking fish antibiotics?

It’s not quite as crazy as it sounds. Fish are given many of the same antibiotics as humans—amoxicillin, ciprofloxacin, penicillin and more—sometimes even in the same doses. These pills, which are intended to be dissolved in fish tanks and be absorbed through fishes' skin, can also look extremely similar to the human versions. And while a trip to the doctor can rack up hundreds of dollars for someone who doesn't have insurance, a bottle of 30 500mg capsules of Moxifish costs just $29.95 from the supplier, Fishceuticals.

But there are a few key reasons why taking your fish’s drugs is a very bad, no good idea. Let’s start at the top.

First, fish antibiotics are completely unregulated. Technically, they should fall under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration, which oversees both human and animal drugs. Those animals including companion animals (dogs, cats, horses) and food animals (cattle, pigs, chickens). Yet no ornamental fish antibiotics are approved by the FDA.

"The antibiotics available in pet stores or online for ornamental fish have not been approved, conditionally approved, or indexed by the FDA, so it is illegal to market them," the FDA said in a statement to Smithsonian.comThe statement continued:

If consumers are seeing these products in stores, they should be aware that these products have no assurance of purity, safety or effectiveness. The FDA does not have any information about the unapproved antibiotics sold in pet stores because they have not been evaluated for quality, safety, effectiveness, or purity. We strongly advise people to not substitute them for approved products that are intended for use in humans as prescribed by their health care provider.

Why aren’t they regulated? According to some veterinarians, they’re simply too small of a problem for the agency to bother with. Pet fish antibiotics make up a tiny fraction of the total amount of antibiotics used, says Samuel Young, a veterinarian and founder of the Uncommon Creatures Mobile Veterinary Services, which treats animals from fish to gila monsters to llamas. Thus, pet fish meds don’t pose nearly the same risks as antibiotics used for food animals, which the FDA is currently working to regulate more tightly.

The FDA says that it does not have any data on how prevalent the fish antibiotics problem is. "We are currently looking into these products," representatives wrote in a statement. "FDA considers taking action based on its resources, the risk the product poses, and its public health priorities." 

Lacking the stamp of FDA approval, fish meds instead often sport claims that they are pharmaceutical or “USP grade,” a supposed quality benchmark set by an independent non-profit called the United States Pharmacopeia. The USP, however, is not a regulatory agency. Though it tests a small number of supplements through its "USP verified" program, it does not otherwise measure the purity or content of drugs for their purported contents.

"I think it's probably mostly B.S." Young says of these grades. "[Companies] are not able to guarantee—or even required to guarantee—what's actually in it, the purity of it, or the actual amount of it. It can be anything."

According to the FDA’s website, the agency hopes to someday help make more of the medications given to "minor species," which include fish, legally available and therefore regulated. But for now, Young describes the field of fish medicine as being in its infancy. He likens the situation to the early days of the livestock industry, when farmers could purchase a range of medications without a prescription. "We're still figuring out what works for fish and what kind of diseases we're treating," he says.

But even if fish meds were labeled as human-grade medicines, using them to self-medicate would still be a bad idea. 

The fish antibiotic Fish Mox Forte contains amoxicillin, a type of penicillin. Penicillin comes with different risks and side effects than other classes of antibiotics, and has been known to breed bacterial resistance. (

When a doctor prescribes you antibiotics, the first step is to make sure you’re dealing with a bacterial infection by running the proper tests. Antibiotics, which are intended to kill or slow the growth of bacteria that cause infection, are useless against a virus—and you don’t want to use them if you don’t have to, or it might lead to bacterial resistance.

The next step is to find out what kind of bacteria you’re up against. Even broad spectrum antibiotics work differently to target different kinds of infections. Moxifish, for instance, contains amoxicillin, a type of penicillin. When a fish absorbs this compound through their skin, it travels through the bloodstream until it latches onto a bacteria’s rigid cell wall. There, it interferes with wall-building, leading to a build-up of pressure that eventually causes the the cell to burst. Unfortunately, many types of bacteria have grown resistant to penicillin: Staphylococcus Aureus, the bacteria commonly responsible for skin infections no longer responds to this class of antibiotics.

Other fish antibiotics, such as API's Erythromycin, are known as macrolides. These compounds destroy bacteria by targeting the protein-building structures of the cells. Without proteins—which act as messengers, structural supports, transporters, storage and more—the cell dies. Another antibiotic class called Quinolones, which include the fish drug Fish Flox, inhibit bacterial cells from copying their DNA, thus preventing the colonies from multiplying. Quinolone are used to treat a range of infections including urinary tract infections, but in recent years many bacteria have begun to develop resistance.

Matching the right antibiotic to the right illness is crucial. “Let's say the antibiotic is correct, that capsule contains the right amount of medicine, and it’s a good quality medication and its able to be absorbed into the system,” says Wilson E. Gwin, director of the Purdue Veterinary Teaching Hospital Pharmacy. “We don't really know if that's the right drug for what the person is trying to treat. If it's the wrong drug, they can do themselves even more harm.”

Choosing the right med is also difficult. Learning the particulars of each antibiotic is "an exhausting part of medical school," says Daniel Morgan, a physician and epidemiologist at the University of Maryland. "It's a bit like learning verb tenses in a language."

So what if you skip the doctor, take a gamble and choose wrong? Well, each drug comes with its own set of potential side effects and allergic reactions. Taking amoxicillin while suffering a viral infection such as mono, for instance, can cause the body to erupt in rashes, says Morgan. Ciprofloxacin, previously a go-to for UTIs and sinus infections, has come under recent scrutiny for causing lasting damage to tendons, muscles, joints, nerves and the central nervous system. Many other antibiotic classes come with their own unpleasant effects. 

And even choosing correctly doesn’t guarantee success.

There’s a reason that bacterial resistance is a major public health problem: Bacteria are hardy foes that adapt rapidly to the changing environment of you. Sometimes, when they divide, they end up with useful random mutations, which they can pass down to future bacterial generations in a matter of hours. Other times, they get genes that are transferred from already resistant bacteria. "As a result, each new progeny becomes a resistant one and a potential donor of resistance traits to new recipient bacteria," writes Stuart B. Levy, a microbiologist and drug resistance expert at Tufts University, in his book The Antibiotic Paradox.

Using these processes, the ingenious invaders eventually develop specific adaptations as they multiply that can tackle and even degrade the antibiotics. Some even take on genes that code for tiny "pumps," which actively eject antibiotics from the bacterial cell. "Bacteria are not there to be destroyed; they're not going to give up," Levy says.

Finally, antibiotics kill off both good and bad bacteria. That means that, to avoid unwanted side effects, it's crucial to take them for the proper amount of time. Ending an antibiotic regimen too soon—or taking one for too long—can both breed further bacterial resistance. Stop too soon and you risk relapse, potentially allowing the microbes causing the disease to proliferate and form resistance. But take antibiotics for too long, and you might be giving the bacteria greater amounts of time to develop ways to elude the meds, recent studies suggest.

In short, you don't want to mess around blindly with your bacteria.


And yet, humans raiding the medicine cabinets of our finned friends is by no means a new trend. As Levy documents in his book, the practice stretches back to at least the 90's. While investigating antibiotics misuse, Levy describes a conversation with a pet store owner who admitted to taking the fish antibiotics for an infected finger—noting that the practice wasn't unusual among other pet store workers.

In 2002, Army physician Brandon J. Goff wrote a letter to the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine documenting an encounter with an unnamed Army Special Forces soldier who came to him with a sinus infection after self-medicating with fish antibiotics from a pet store. The soldier described this source of antibiotics as "common knowledge among all branches of the American Special Forces community," according to Goff.

In the years since, many pet stores have wised up to the trend and quietly removed these antibiotics from their shelves. PetSmart representatives told that the company had limited its selection to "fish medication in forms that could not easily be consumed by humans. This allows us to provide fish medication to the customers who need it for their aquariums while helping to prevent misuse." (The company did not say when they made the change and did not respond to a follow-up request.) In the last week, Amazon has also removed these antibiotics from their site last week in the wake of Sharp’s Tweet; the company declined to comment about the move.

Unfortunately, fish antibiotics are still well within reach. A quick Google search for fish antibiotics pulls up a range of other sources, including Walmart and Thomas Labs. And many Youtube videos, blogs and websites provide guidance for humans seeking out information on taking fish medications for their own personal use. These often target Doomsday preppers—people who stockpile medical supplies and other necessities in case of a society-ending catastrophe—but reddit and other online forums show that the fad isn't limited to those preparing for the end of days.

Sure, some people using fish meds may get lucky, says Morgan. And others may experience few effects, good or ill. But if you are taking fish antibiotics, you’re playing a dangerous game, and you’re playing it with your health. "People will always find different ways to get at things that they think maybe helpful,” says Morgan. “The issue is you need to balance potential harms and benefits … I would guess that there are people out there who have been harmed by doing it."  

"We're not talking about a 50 cent or $200 fish—we're talking about a human life,” adds Gwin. “You really are taking a chance. Is it worth it?”

Editor's Note, August 2017, 2017: This post has been updated to include follow-up from the FDA.

Top Eight Ocean Stories That Made Waves in 2016

Smithsonian Magazine

What a year it’s been. Major headlines ran the gamut from optimistic to alarming. Smithsonian's Ocean Portal team has pulled together, in no particular order, the ocean stories that caught our attention:

1. Tackling Ocean Trash

When it comes to trash, states aren't just talking. (iStock / Herianus)

It’s no secret that ocean pollution is on the rise; however, some communities are taking big steps to clean up their local coastlines. This year, India boasted the world’s largest beach clean-up: volunteers removed more than 4 million pounds of debris from Versova Beach over the course of a year. Located along the western shoreline of Mumbai facing the Arabian Sea, the beach clean-up began with one concerned citizen, and quickly snowballed into a team of 200 active volunteers.

This November, the state of California voted to uphold a landmark plastic bag ban, making it the first state in the U.S. to prohibit these long-lived oceanic nuisances. Environmentalists, concerned about the plastic pollution that is already choking waterways, celebrated the decision. California joins Hawaii, which has a similar plastic bag ban (but allows for biodegradable bags), along with many other counties and states with plastic bag taxes, in enacting waste reduction legislation.

2. Animals that Surprised Us

Some deep-sea discoveries defy explanation. (Alamy)

The ocean community (and most everyone else) was shocked this past August when scientists confirmed that the elusive Greenland shark can live up to roughly 400 years. This shark beats out ancient bowhead whales and rougheye rockfish to receive the prize of longest-documented lifespan of any vertebrate. Just consider: some sharks living today could have been swimming in the Arctic Ocean while Shakespeare was still alive! 

Scientists were stumped after the ocean exploring vessel, the Nautilus, recorded footage of a curious purple ball off the coast of California’s Channel Islands. “I’m stumped, I have no idea—I couldn’t even hazard a guess,” one researcher said on camera. After some consulting, the Nautilus team suspects that unidentified orb and Internet sensation may be a pleurobranch, a cousin to the more familiar nudibranch.

Some tiny deep-sea creatures have been hiding a big secret. Although we’ve known about a group of tiny shrimp-like crustaceans called hyperiids for some time, researchers are just now discovering they’ve got a super sly party trick: invisibility. Internal nanotechnology allows these critters to cloak themselves, which is especially advantageous in the open ocean where there’s no place to hide.

3. Keeping Spaces Wild and Species Safe 

The pristine Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument will enjoy historic protection. (Alamy)

2016 was a banner year for marine protected areas. In August, President Obama created what was at the time the world’s largest marine protected area with the expansion of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, building on an effort initially spearheaded by former president George W. Bush. The UNESCO World Heritage Centre characterized the monument as “an embodiment of the Hawaiian concept of kinship between people and the natural world.”

This paradise of coral reefs and seamounts is home to over 7,000 species—one of which will be named after the 44nd president. The vibrant pink, orange and yellow fish will be named to honor Obama’s commitment to protecting nature in Hawaii and around the U.S. Just a few weeks after the announcement, the president cut the ribbon for the Atlantic’s first-ever marine monument, the Atlantic Ocean National Marine Monument located off the coast of Massachusetts.

But the news for ocean protection gets better. In October, the Ross Sea—home to some of the most productive waters in the Antarctic and known as the “Last Ocean” due to its relatively untouched seascape—was finally declared a marine reserve. After a decades-long push to protect this critical region, a coalition of 24 countries agreed to provide international protection for 598,000 square miles (1,548,812 square km) of water. This area then became the world’s new largest marine reserve. Fortunately, this world is plenty big enough for the two of them.

Not only were wild spaces protected in 2016: Three shark species gained international protection under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. They join corals, sea turtles and other marine species on the list.

4. “It’s the Climate, Stupid” 

Ice melt is increasing, but there are some bright spots. (iStock / nevereverro)

Some of the most distressing climate stories of 2016 came with the news that the Earth’s carbon dioxide levels had permanently surpassed 400 parts per million, a danger-zone threshold that hasn’t been exceeded in millions of years. In addition to 2016 being the hottest year on record yet, surpassing the record set just the year before, unprecedented ice melt in the Arctic and accelerated melting of ice in Antarctica has scientists increasingly worried about alarming trends at the poles.

Extreme weather, another consequence of climate change, has also taken a major toll on the planet this year. Hurricane Matthew permanently pushed the waterline onto higher ground in the American southeast and claimed the lives of over 1,000 Haitians and many others, including 26 people in the U.S. 

Despite the gloom, environmental allies around the globe celebrated a huge victory when the Paris climate agreement officially went into effect this year. Ninety-six countries signed on to support the reduction of greenhouse gasses emissions (and it currently looks like the accord will move forward no matter what). In response to this and other news of environmental progress, the Smithsonian Institution announced its plans to host the first ever global Earth Optimism Summit, Earth Day weekend of 2017 in Washington, D.C. and around the planet—an unprecedented international gathering of scientists, practitioners and change-makers focusing on what’s working in conservation.

5. Reports of my Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated (Or Have They?)

Good news and bad for the remarkably resilient Great Barrier Reef. (Alamy)

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef covers over 344,000 square kilometers and is made up of roughly 3,000 coral reefs. This year it wasn’t doing so hot. Well, maybe that’s the wrong phrasing: With global ocean temperatures rising due to climate change made worse by a strong El Niño, many of the tiny algae that provide sustenance for the coral animals have evacuated the premises.

Called coral bleaching, since coral without the algae (called zooxanthellae) turn a startling bone white, severe or prolonged bleaching can kill coral colonies or leave them vulnerable to other threats like disease. Headlines about the demise of this UNESCO World Heritage Site abounded, and in November scientists confirmed that the bleaching event was the worse coral die-off ever recorded.

Outside Magazine even went so far as to pen a satirical obituary for the entire ecosystem. Scientists have pushed back on the death narrative—the reef has a chance yet. But ever-increasing carbon dioxide emissions will have to be curbed in order to protect the Great Barrier Reef and other coral systems around the world. The loss of coral reefs would impact millions of people who rely on reefs for jobs, storm protection and food.

6. Technology Hits the Waves

Ocean drones are charting new territory, monitoring animal migrations and even assessing the chemical composition of whale burps. (Alamy)

Technology in 2016 helped researchers learn more about the ocean, but the ocean also gave back. One scientist, an integrative biologist, was inspired to mimic nature by a trip to the aquarium with his daughter. The result was a tiny robot stingray—only about half an inch long—built out of muscle cells from the heart of a rat. Another group of scientists built a “biohybrid robot” that utilized muscle cells from the mouth of a slow-moving sea slug, the California sea hare.

Advances in drone technology aren’t just putting them on holiday gift guides this year. Researchers are using drones to help unlock secrets of the sea—from surveying penguin populations to assessing whale health and even learning about mysterious sea turtle behavior. Dealing with sand, salt water and rollicking boat decks required some special adaptations to make the drones seaworthy, however.

We are also learning more from underwater imagery thanks to a microscope that works underwater. The ability to bring a microscope straight to undersea creatures, rather than removing them from their natural habitats, is already revealing new information about the way individual coral polyps interact and the patterns in which algae take over coral ecosystems.

7. Hidden Reefs

This year, the Great Barrier Reef was found to be hiding another reef beneath it. (Alamy)

With only five percent of the ocean explored it’s not all that surprising that scientists find new species regularly. But sometimes they even find entire ecosystems. There is so much left to explore that a previously unknown deep-sea coral reef was discovered along the coast of Brazil in the Atlantic Ocean earlier this year. All 600 miles (965 km) of the reef had been previously overlooked. The reef thrives at the mouth of the Amazon River, and although researchers noted in a 1977 journal publication that something like this might exist, no one had been able to conduct the necessary search for it in the 40 years since its mention.

Scientists also found an entirely new reef simply hiding underneath the Great Barrier Reef. Having known about these “unusual” structures for decades, scientists were finally able to use remote sensing technology to map the region and pinpoint what they are. Not your typical coral reef—the structures are built up from limestone that is a remnant of a type of green alga called Halimeda. The Halimeda algae form the rounded limestone structures as they die. The discovery means that there are many new questions about how the two reefs and their inhabitants interact.

8. All Together Now: “Awwww” 

We thought we’d leave you smiling. This purple stubby squid was filmed from an ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) off the E/V Nautilus while it explored the seafloor off the coast of California. It even had the researchers on board exclaiming excitedly when they came across the wide-eyed cephalopod at a depth of 900 meters (2,950 feet), the equivalent of eight football fields.

The stubby squid is a type of bobtail squid, which is actually most closely related to the cuttlefish. Last year we glimpsed “what might be the world’s cutest octopus.” (Judge for yourself.) This year we’re opening up the competition to all cephalopods, and this little fellow (only about the size of a human fist) is definitely the winner. Take it from the scientists who were narrating as the cameras zoomed in—“It looks so fake! It looks like some little kid dropped their toy!”   

The Complicated Racial Politics of Going “Undercover” to Report on the Jim Crow South

Smithsonian Magazine

In May 1948, Ray Sprigle traveled from Pittsburgh to Atlanta to rural Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. He talked to sharecroppers and black doctors and families whose lives were torn apart by lynching. He visited desperately underfunded schools for black children and resort towns where only white people were allowed to bathe in the ocean. He spoke with scores of African-Americans, the introductions made by his travel companion, NAACP activist John Wesley Dobbs.

In one of the most striking moments of his reporting trip, he met the Snipes family—a black family forced to flee their home after their son was killed voting in a Georgia election. “Death missed [Private Macy Yost Snipes] on a dozen bloody battlefields overseas, where he served his country well,” Sprigle later wrote. “He came home to die in the littered door-yard of his boyhood home because he thought that freedom was for all Americans, and tried to prove it.”

But Sprigle—a white, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist—wasn't traveling as himself. He traveled as James Rayel Crawford, a light-skinned black man with a shaved head who told his sources he was collecting information for the NAACP. More than a decade before John Howard Griffin undertook a similar feat and wrote about it in his memoir Black Like Me, Sprigle disguised himself as black in the Jim Crow South to write a 21-part series for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

“Sprigle was so far ahead of the curve, his exploit was forgotten,” says Bill Steigerwald, himself a journalist who worked for years at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the author of a new book called 30 Days a Black Man. Steigerwald discovered the lengths Sprigle had gone to during his tour of the South 50 years after it happened. “I thought, oh my god, this is an unbelievable story, how come I’ve never heard of it? It was a great story about a journalist who had the whole country talking about race in 1948.”

Sprigle’s trip to the South wasn’t the first time he donned a disguise for the sake of a story. He’d previously launched undercover investigations of the Byberry mental institution in Philadelphia, a state-operated psychiatric institution called Mayview, and the black market for meat during World War II. Each of the investigations required he masquerade as someone he wasn’t—but none were as dramatic, or controversial, as his attempt to pass as African-American.

The act of “passing” was something Sprigle touched upon early in his series—though he described its prevalence in the African-American community. “The fact remains that there are many thousands of Negroes in the South who could ‘pass’ any day they wish,” Sprigle wrote. “I talked to scores of them. Nearly every one had a sister or brother or some other relative who was living as a white man or woman in the North.” Among the more famous examples of passing among the African-American community are Ellen Craft, who used her fair skin to escape slavery with her husband disguised as her servant in 1848, and Walter White, whose blond hair and blue eyes helped him travel through the Jim Crow South to report on lynchings for the NAACP. Far rarer were instances of white people passing as black, because such a transition meant giving up the benefits of their race. And Sprigle’s act wasn’t universally praised or accepted by other writers of the era.

“Mr. Sprigle is guilty of the common blunder of a great number of other northern whites. A white man who is sincerely interested in promoting the advancement of the Negro in the South need not make any apology for being white," a reviewer in the Atlanta Daily World, the city’s still-extant black newspaper, wrote. "And never once have we heard of them changing racial identity in order to accomplish their desired ends.” The sentiment was echoed in a review of Sprigle’s book, In the Land of Jim Crow. It was “somewhat doubtful whether a white, pretending to be a Negro” could really understand the experience of that group, the reviewer wrote. 

“It’s really easy to think, [Sprigle] is problematic, let’s dismiss everything,” says Alisha Gaines, professor at Florida State University whose forthcoming book Black for a Day: Fantasies of Race and Empathy deals with Sprigle and other cases of white-to-black passing. “I don’t advocate for everyone to go paint themselves and shave their heads, but there’s something about their intentionality that I want to hold on to. About wanting to understand, about caring enough and being compassionate.” But, Gaines adds, it seemed like Sprigle reported the story in disguise in an (unsuccessful) attempt at another Pulitzer rather than for reasons of social justice.

“In 4,000 miles of travel by Jim Crow train and bus and street car and by motor, I encountered not one unpleasant incident,” Sprigle concluded at the end of his series. “I took no chances. I was more than careful to be a ‘good [n****r.]’” What Sprigle clearly missed, however, was that behavior and caution had little to do with how blacks were treated in the South. Griffin, once he began publishing his expose in an African-American owned magazine, was forced to take his family and flee the country after receiving death threats and having an effigy of him hung in Dallas.

Image by John Heinz History Center. Sprigle outside his farmhouse in the woods west of Pittsburgh. (original image)

Image by Senator John Heinz History Center. Sprigle's series ran in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (original image)

Image by Senator John Heinz History Center. Ray Sprigle in his disguise upon returning from the south. (original image)

Image by Senator John Heinz History Center. Ray Sprigle in his trademark hat and corncob pipe. (original image)

Gaines has also found, in studying men like Sprigle and Griffin, that engaging with racism on an interpersonal level is much different than recognizing it as a structural issue. Though Sprigle provided coverage of racism in the South, he failed to cover racism in the North. He mentioned the “injustice” of discrimination in the North in one report, but argued that the focus should be on the “bloodstained tragedy” of the South.

In Sprigle’s Pittsburgh, 40 percent of employers banned black employees outright, Steigerwald writes. There were no black doctors until 1948, only two black teachers in integrated schools, and numerous instances of segregation in public pools, theaters and hotels. But the white media seemed disinterested in covering that discrimination. “If they seriously cared about civil rights, institutionalized racial discrimination, or black workers being automatically shut out of most of the best jobs in their hometown because of their skin color, the white papers didn’t editorialize about it,” Steigerwald writes.

Steigerwald sees Sprigle as an unlikely hero who delivered harsh truths to an audience that wouldn't have been receptive of those same issues if delivered by an African-American reporter—and might never have seen those stories given the era’s segregated press. “It would’ve been nice if a black man could’ve pulled that off, but given the segregated media of the time, the greatest black writer of all could’ve written exactly what Sprigle wrote and about two white people would’ve seen it.”

But for Gaines, that’s just another effect of racism. “Black people have been writing about what it means to be black since 1763. At the end of the day, as well-meaning as I think some of these projects were, it is a project of white privilege,” Gaines says. “It’s a lack of racial navigation when a white person says, ‘I have to assume this authority in order for other white people to get it.’”

Gaines isn’t alone in the critique. CBS newscaster Don Hollenbeck praised In the Land of Jim Crow, but thought a black journalist “probably would’ve collected many times the material the Post-Gazette reporter did.” And while there were admittedly few African-American journalists working for major daily publications at the time, there was at least one: Ted Poston, who worked for the New York Post and, despite serious concerns for his safety, wrote about a rape trial in Florida in 1949, in which three African-American men were accused of raping a white housewife.

There were also a limited number of white southern journalists talking about issues of racism and injustice at the time. One of them was Hodding Carter Sr., the editor of the Democrat Delta-Times in Greenville, Mississippi, who was considered a liberal despite failing to condemn segregation. Still, Carter spoke out against the violence of lynching and the racial discrimination African-Americans faced. But by focusing on the South, Carter felt Sprigle was singling out the region for a problem that plagued all parts of America.

“[Sprigle] might disguise himself as a Mexican in the Southwest, or a Filipino or Japanese on the west coast, or a Jew in a good many American cities, or a militant, proselytizing Protestant in Boston, or a Negro in Chicago’s South Side, or a truly poor white in Georgia,” Hodding wrote, espousing what was essentially the “All Lives Matter” argument of its time. “He’d discover the really basic and menacing fact that prejudice isn’t directed solely to black skins or limited to the South.”  

Sprigle’s work stirred up plenty of controversy and was never reprinted by white southern papers. But it did stimulate a national media debate about Jim Crow and racism. Both Steigerwald and Gaines agree that it’s a story worth discussing today—for different reasons.

“It shows how far we’ve come and maybe how far we haven’t come,” Steigerwald says. “If Ray Sprigle had worked for a New York newspaper and done all the things he did, by 1950 Spencer Tracy would’ve been playing him in a movie.”

For Gaines, the legacy is less about Sprigle’s journalistic prowess and more about how we understand his actions today. “I think it’s even more timely now because of our political climate and how to be a good ally. What does that mean, and what does empathy look like?” It doesn’t mean changing the color of one’s own skin anymore, Gaines says—but questioning the superiority of one’s whiteness is still a valuable lesson.

Wired Founder Kevin Kelly On the Technologies That Will Dominate Our Future

Smithsonian Magazine

Kevin Kelly's title at Wired magazine is "senior maverick." While he co-founded the publication in 1993, he has been thinking about the future in an outside-the-box way his whole career. A former editor of the countercultural technology magazine Whole Earth Review, Kelly has championed the Quantified Self movement whereby humans use technology to track their daily lives, co-sponsored the first Hackers Conference back in the mid-1980s and been involved in The Long Now Foundation, a project to look at our long-range future as humans. He's also written several books, including the bestselling What Technology Wants, which looks at technology as its own biological system.

In his new book, The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future, Kelly sorts what he sees as the biggest coming trends into 12 categories—things like "screening" (turning more surfaces into screens) and "tracking" (using surveillance technologies more and more). We talked with Kelly about his predictions for the world to come, and how we can help shape technology for the better. 

The title of your book is The Inevitable. What does that mean, and why did you choose it?

It’s sort of slightly controversial because many people don’t believe that anything is inevitable. I use the term to indicate that there’s a general drift or leaning in technology such that the large forms are headed in a certain direction and we should embrace it. I like to think of it as gravity in a valley. Raindrops are falling in a valley. The drop of water as it flows down the valley is not predictable in its specifics, but the general direction is downward.

My take is that the specific aspects [of technologies] are not predictable, but the general direction is inevitable. I want people to embrace the general direction while deciding and choosing the specifics. The specifics matter to us a lot. And we have a lot of choice about that. Telephones were inevitable, but the iPhone was not. The internet was inevitable, but Twitter was not. It’s only by embracing the large scale trend that we can steer the general direction.


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You talk about "sharing" in your book, and say we will share much more information in the future than we do now. What are some examples?

There’s a small movement, but I think it needs to be much bigger, which is about sharing our medical and health information. There’s so much to be gained for the benefit of us all by sharing what our bodies do and how we react and adjust to each day, any kind of perturbations during that day, anything we’re taking in terms of medications or medical interventions. If we can share all of that, that’s immensely powerful in terms of making better medications, making better knowledge about who we are and tailoring that to use specifically so we personally could benefit.

One thing I’ve long been an advocate of was the idea of the “quantified self,” where the sensors that can monitor things in our bodies become smaller and cheaper and easier to use, so we kind of wear them in clothes or where we sit, maybe we wear them on our wrists or different parts of our bodies, and they’re collecting information noninvasively. [In the future] we’re getting this info all the time, and then we can share it in different manners, whether it’s with our name on it, or anonymized, randomized or with encryption. That information is going into the cloud, and it’s being combined using artificial intelligence to extract out some meaning.

You also write how the future will be about “accessing” instead of owning. Can you talk more about this?

The general drift is that we as a society are moving away from owning things to accessing things. Access means that we can get the thing or the experience or the service any time we want from anywhere in the world. If you can kind of reach for something and get it, then that’s in many ways better than owning it and having to find it, take care of it, maintain it and upgrade it.

This movement was first evident in the digital realm. Most people aren’t really buying movies anymore in terms of owning them. You just buy a subscription to them that you have access to with Netflix or Amazon Prime or Hulu. Getting that movie any time you wanted was much better than having to purchase it on VHS, store it and upgrade it. And so now we’re seeing that same kind of shift away from ownership for even things like cars. The most visible thing was Uber. If you could summon a car any time, wherever you were, and it would appear within minutes and take you wherever you needed to go and then disappear, in many ways that’s a better arrangement than having to own a car, fix it and park it. Maybe in the future the Ubers will be self-driven, so we won’t even have to drive them.

Are there any examples of other countries being ahead of the United States in terms of specific uses of technology?

China is in many ways leading the charge in living on your phone. We look around and think, “Oh my gosh, these young millennials are just living on their phones.” Well, the millennials in China are two steps ahead of us. Some of their platforms, like WeChat, are Facebook plus Twitter plus PayPal plus Snapchat. They’ve got all the things wrapped into one, and the young there are completely living online. They order everything from their daily meals to rides, and organize events and their social lives to an extent we don’t see in the West. One of the innovations is they are very heavy users of voicemail. This is old school voicemail, but they use it and instant message with voice instead of pictures or text. This works really well and they’re now doing more and more video clips as a means of communication. So they’re ahead in the adoption of that aspect of social interaction.

[America will make the same shift] maybe within three years. We’re seeing that shift already, moving to pictures and emoticons instead of text. More and more or our lives are moving from text-based communication to visual-based communication. We’re moving from being “People of the Book” to “People of the Screen.” In the screen, the center of culture is no longer text but visuals, moving images that we flicker across the screen.

How will becoming “People of the Screen” change our culture?

There are a lot of other cultural changes that come about when you depend on flickering images instead of text. Books were fixed and didn’t change once written. Books had authors, which is the same root as “authority.” On the screen everything is ephemeral and flowing and unfinished, incomplete, relativistic, subjective. It’s moving very fast, and we have to sort of assemble it ourselves.

You consider yourself optimistic about the future. Why are so many portrayals of the future in movies and literature so dystopian?

Conflict, disaster, things unraveling are much more cinematic and make a better story than things working smoothly, which is basically boring. It makes a much better story if things collapse, and there’s nothing as mesmerizing as watching something blow up or smashing glass. There’s a bias that we’re hard-wired to want to tell a story in which things get worse, and that makes it really hard for us as a society to go forward because we don’t have as clear a vision of how the future might be friendly to us.

We live in an America with a very pessimistic view of the future that’s really unwarranted by the evidence. The evidence is very clear that progress is real and things are much better today than they were 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 200 years ago. If we were honest about that, we’d have to admit that things are getting better. And that because of history, we are most likely to continue making things better year after year. The things that are coming—artificial intelligence, virtual reality—we can imagine how things might go wrong, but it’s much more likely that things will go well.

Fifty years ago, our culture seemed more optimistic about the future, at least in terms of pop culture—all the techno-utopian sci-fi and TV shows from the 1950s and 1960s, for example. What changed to make us more negative?

We came to understand that every single technology will bite back. There’s a cost for every innovation. Every single new technology that’s been invented to solve a problem will invent almost as many new problems as it solves. Now we know. We’re pretty clear on that. It doesn’t matter how angelic the technology seems, it’s going to have major costs. And those major costs will have to be accounted for. I’m not a utopian. I don’t believe we’re going to have less problems in the future. We’re going to have more problems. But I’m a techno-solutionist. I’m a Silicon Valley guy. I believe that the solutions to those new problems are additional technologies.

You write about the impulse to shy away from new technologies out of fear, and why that instinct is harmful. So how can we as a society react better to the coming technologies of the future?

Some of the things that are coming are very scary. Artificial intelligence can look scary because it will certainly disrupt many of the jobs we can have. Virtual reality can be very scary, and total tracking can be very scary. There’s often an initial impulse to try to prohibit things like AI. Just recently, there was the first fatal crash in an automatically driven car. There’ll be calls for people to outlaw AI from driving cars because one person has died, forgetting the fact that as humans we kill a million people a year in autos. There will be reactions to downgrade, block and in some way turn back some of these technologies. I’m suggesting that, first of all, that doesn’t work, but that it’s only by engaging these technologies that we can steer them. It’s only by embracing them that we can decide the specifics and have control over it.

So while the internet was inevitable, the kind of internet we’re going to get is not at all. Will it be open or closed, neutral or not? These are decisions we have a lot of room to make, and we must make, and [they] will make a huge difference. But we can only make these changes by using this technology, not prohibiting it. 

Elephants Have Male Bonding Rituals, Too

Smithsonian Magazine

Ecologist Caitlin O’Connell has spent more than two decades observing elephants on the sandy plains of Etosha National Park, in northern Namibia. She arrives sometime in June each season, sets up camp and settles into her data collection, recording the elephants’ comings and goings, as well as their interactions, from a tower north of Mushara water hole. “The pattern of animal movements demarks the passage of time almost as reliably as the cycles of the sun and moon,” she writes in her new book, Elephant Don: The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse, out in April from University of Chicago Press.

African elephants are known for their matriarchal societies, with a dominant female leading a clan that includes her young and their offspring. Males are born into these families, and sisters, mothers and aunts care for the young elephants. As they mature into bulls, the males are kicked out of the group and sent off to fend for themselves. But they don’t become lone wanderers detached from any community, as O’Connell’s recent research at Mushara highlights. They travel together, drink together, urge one another into action and form friendships that, like human relationships, might change with the seasons or last a lifetime.

I spoke with O'Connell about elephant bonding and getting to know the Mushara posse. (The following has been edited for length.)

Why did you choose to focus your new book on male elephants?

Most people don’t realize that male elephants are very social animals. Having company is important to them. They form close bonds and have overtly ritual relationships. When a dominant male arrives on the scene, for example, you have the second-, third-, fourth-ranking bulls back up and let him into the best position at the water hole. The younger bulls will stand in line and wait to be able to place their trunks in his mouth. They are waiting with anticipation to be able to do this. In time, all of the bulls will come and greet the dominant male in the same way. It is extremely organized, like lining up to kiss the ring of a pope or a Mafioso don.

The big, older bulls are targets of poaching. People think of lone bulls out there, and they might think, “What is it going to hurt a population if you cull a few of those elephants?” But these old males are similar to matriarchs. They are repositories of knowledge, and they teach the next generation.

Are there other rituals the males follow?

You’d think that a male might show up at a water hole, and he might interact with the others and then leave. Why would he want those younger bulls to follow him to another water hole? But the dominant male will actually corral up his constituents. Even if they aren’t ready to leave, he will force the younger ones by pushing on their behinds.

And there’s a second ritual, a vocal ritual between bonded individuals. The dominant male will make the call to leave, what we call a “Let’s go” rumble, similar to what a matriarch would emit. Another male elephant, right as the first finishes, will also rumble, and then a third might rumble. And all the elephants will follow the dominant male out.


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Introduce us to Greg, the dominant male at the center of your story. Why is he the one in charge?

Greg is not the biggest bull, not the oldest, and he doesn’t have the biggest tusks. He is very strong-willed and he is a great politician. He is the most felicitous and gentle dominant bull that I’ve witnessed. He actively solicits the young bulls and gets them into the fold and welcomes them. He’s also very quick to discipline someone who gets out of line in the higher ranks. It’s like he knows how to manage the carrot and the stick.

I’ve seen other bulls try to become more dominant and raise their rank, but they are so overly aggressive that other bulls don’t want them around. There’s an elephant Beckham, and he is clearly trying to become friends with a bonded pair, Keith and Willie, but he becomes so aggressive that they don’t want him to follow them.

You’ve mentioned a few other elephants now. Willie, which is short for Willie Nelson, right? And there’s a Prince Charles, a Luke Skywalker. How do you decide on the names?

We try to match the name to at least one physical feature. Willie Nelson is very raggedy. Every elephant has a catalog number, but these names help us in our practical dealings with everyday identification. There are several rock stars in the mix, because of these really long, black, scraggly tails that the elephants have. Ozzy Osbourne is another one.

And do these elephants also have different personalities?

As it turns out, Willie Nelson is a very mild, gentle fellow. All the females seem attracted to him. Another interesting character is Prince Charles, who was a very aggressive, lower-ranking bull until, at one point, Greg went missing. Before Greg went missing, younger bulls would admire Prince Charles and want to follow him and he would never let them. He would look over his shoulder, stop, turn around and give them a big head shake, like “You are not following me.” After Greg went missing, though, Prince Charles completely changed his behavior. He became much more diplomatic and much more interested in trying to get a posse of his own.

What other kinds of circumstances might shake up the hierarchy?

Social animals are thought to form dominance hierarchies to minimize conflict over access to resources, in this case, especially, water. If you don’t have limited resources, you don’t need to have such a strict linear hierarchy. In the drier years, the elephants form these big, tight-knit groups. But in the wetter years, when there are more resources, more places to drink, that hierarchy breaks down. In the wetter years, the youngsters will get a little more aggressive. They aren’t as reverent.

During these wet years, you could see times when Greg was struggling to hold his power. He would initiative a “Let’s go” rumble, and then look back and nobody has moved. This is really embarrassing. They are ignoring him. When he comes back, he has to physically coerce by shoving, by rubbing up against close associates that are lower in rank.

Do we know how long Greg’s dominance will last?

When I first started keeping track of dominance between males, Greg was clearly the dominant bull. I started asking colleagues who study other long-lived social animals, “What’s the life expectancy of the dominant individual?” It is very stressful to be up there, fighting off the others constantly and having to keep your rank. I was surprised how little information there was out there.

There is a window in which Greg is wounded, and we have never learned for sure exactly what happened. There was a slice off the side of his trunk. It was very raw. He’d have to spend double the time drinking because half of the water would fall out; there’d be this spilling noise. And, after drinking, he would soak it in the water for an hour. Nobody wanted to wait around with him. And he did not want to be with associates his age or older. If anyone approached, he would be aggressive.  

But then the following year, he came back fully fit again. He wasn’t skinny. His ribs weren’t showing. He looked healthy again, and his trunk wound was not as raw. He didn’t have to soak it. He was back at the height; it was the most amazing thing. He had his posse, and all of those just underneath him in rank fell back in line. The durability of his position at the top, even with fluctuations in wet years, made me think, well, as long as he is fit, he is going to stay on top.

You have another book coming out, a novel about illegal ivory poaching. Why write fiction?

The novel [Ivory Ghosts] has been a 20-year labor of love, but it’s for a different purpose—to get people to understand what it is like for people to live with elephants on the ground, the very subtle politics of how to conserve elephants, and what’s the right way, and how do deal with the craziness of Africa. It’s about corruption and trust and how to build solidarity for the elephant.

What inspired the story was working for the Namibian government in the Caprivi region. My husband and I were scientists contracted to the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. I was so inspired by our boss and the rangers that he managed, their dedication to elephants and protecting them against poachers and putting their lives on the line at every moment that they were out on patrol. They were such colorful, dedicated characters. The book is based on a lot of experiences we had. I specifically wanted to write it as fiction to get past the idea of preaching to the choir. I wanted to be able to spread the word.

Even When He Was in His 20s, Winston Churchill Was Already on the Verge of Greatness

Smithsonian Magazine

Winston Churchill was on the run. He’d just escaped from a military prison in South Africa, throwing himself over a fence and into some bushes, where he squatted, hiding from his captors. He landed much too close to a well-lit house full of people. Worse, just yards away, a man was smoking a cigar— a man, he knew, who wouldn’t hesitate to shout for the armed prison guards.

So Churchill, then just 24 years old, remained motionless, trusting the darkness and shadows to hide him. A second man joined the first, also lighting up, each facing him. Just then, a dog and cat came tearing through the underbrush. The cat crashed into Churchill and shrieked in alarm — he stifled his impulse to yell or jump. The men dismissed the commotion, reentered the house, and Churchill took off for the nearest safe territory which was 300 miles away.


Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape, and the Making of Winston Churchill

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The formative experience of Churchill’s thrilling adventure during the turn-of-the-century Boer War serves as fodder for Hero of the Empire: The Boer War, a Daring Escape and the Making of Winston Churchill, the latest book from best-selling author Candice Millard, a worthy addition to the 12,000-plus volumes already written about the famed British statesman. As with her two previous books, The River of Doubt and Destiny of the Republic  about Theodore Roosevelt and James A. Garfield, respectively, Millard has selected a single episode in a long and action-packed life of an iconic figure as her focal point.

Hero of the Empire centers on Churchill’s stint in South Africa as a war correspondent for London’s Morning Post  during the Boer War, which erupted in 1899 after gold and diamonds were discovered in southern Africa. The sought-after resources resided “in the South African Republic, also known as the Transvaal, an independent country that belonged to a group of Dutch, German and Huguenot descendants knows as the Boers,” according to the book. The British Empire wanted to make the land its own, but the white African population held their ground.

Several weeks into the war, Churchill was reporting aboard a train of British soldiers when the Boer army ambushed them and he was taken prisoner. After a month of detention, he made a break for it, riding the rails and hiking through Zulu country. At the lowest point in his journey, Churchill was sequestered in a horse stable in the bowels of a coal mine surrounded by fat, white rats that ate his papers and candles.

“I love to have a narrow story that I can dig really deeply into. I got to talk about South Africa, I got to talk about the Zulu, I got to talk about the Boers, I got to talk about railroads, and coal mines, and all these other things that interest me,” Millard says from one of two light gray leather couches in her office in the suburbs of Kansas City, Kansas.

The former National Geographic writer is unassuming and unadorned in a white T-shirt and baggy blue capris, her dark hair pulled back in a hasty ponytail. Hers is a corner office with two large windows, but the blinds shut out the hot September sun and the rest of the world. When she’s not travelling for research, Millard spends her days here, immersed in another century for years at a time.

Millard chose to tell the story of Churchill’s imprisonment and escape during the Boer War not because it’s unknown — very few Churchill stones have been left unturned. And she didn’t simply choose it so that she could talk about the railroads and coal mines, or Boer leader Louis Botha or visionary Solomon Plaatje, who founded the South African Native National Congress and spent a good deal of time observing and writing about the British army’s then-failing tactics -- though she allows many pages for them, too. Her reason, it seems, was at once grander and humbler than all that: to explore the basic humanity that dwells in even the greatest figure. She explains, “Garfield called it ‘the bed of the sea’ — when someone is ill or desperate, everything’s stripped bare. You see their true character. You see their true nature. That’s always stayed with me, that phrase, ‘the bed of the sea.’”

She says of writing about Churchill’s escape, “So much of who he was and who he became came through at this time and at this moment of danger and desperation. And all of his audacity and courage and arrogance and ambition comes to light. It really did make him a national hero.” As the son of the Sir Randolph Churchill, once a prominent politician, Churchill had been a high-profile prisoner.  His escape was swiftly reported in newspapers on both continents.  

“What, to me, was most amazing was that on the outside he looks so different from the Churchill we think of,” she says. “We think of this sort of overweight guy chomping on a cigar, and he’s bald and sending young men into war. And here, you have this young, thin guy with red hair and so much ambition. Inside he was fully formed. He was the Winston Churchill we think of when we think of him.”

Even so, throughout Hero of the Empire, Millard portrays Churchill as a fairly irritating upstart who couldn’t be trusted with plans for the prison break. According to her research, Churchill’s friend and fellow prisoner of war, British officer Aylmer Haldane, had “strong reservations about attempting to escape with him.” Churchill was known to have a bad shoulder, but in addition to that, she writes, “While the other men in the prison played vigorous games … to keep themselves fit, Churchill sat before a chessboard or stared moodily at an unread book. ‘This led me to conclude,’ Haldane wrote, ‘that his agility might be at fault.’”

“Just six months after his escape, Churchill ran for Parliament for the second time. This time, to no one’s surprise, least of all his own, he won. “It is clear to me from the figures,” he wrote to the prime minister, “that nothing but personal popularity arising out of the late South African War, carried me in.” (Doubleday)

But worse than the physical strikes against him, Churchill had little discretion, loved to talk, and, Haldane felt, “was constitutionally incapable of keeping their plans secret.”

This is the chatty, out-of-shape character Millard shows hiding in the bushes with “£75, four slabs of melting chocolate and a crumbling biscuit” in his pockets. The description of him only grows more pitiful when she references the wanted poster the Boers eventually issued. Aside from a regular physical description, they added: “stooping gait, almost invisible mustache, speaks through his nose, cannot give full expression to the letter ‘s,’ and does not know a word of Dutch … occasionally makes a rattling noise in his throat.” This is the boy who is alone and 300 miles from the safety of Portuguese East Africa, now Mozambique, the Transvaal’s closest neighbor and closest unguarded neutral territory.

While the journey that followed his escape was fraught with ordeals, he also had the stupendous luck of encountering the British operator of a German-owned colliery who was willing to risk his own life to see Churchill to safety. The Boers considered Churchill’s recapture a top priority and launched a door-to-door campaign over several hundred square miles which made him something of an international celebrity--the locals determined to catch him, the British thrilled that one of their own was eluding capture. Only hours after he reached the British consulate, armed Englishmen gathered on the lawn, waiting to escort him to British territory.

“Churchill set sail for South Africa just two days after war was declared. Hired as a correspondent by the Morning Post, he quickly made his way to the heart of the war, settling into a bell tent with two other journalists. “I had not before encountered this sort of ambition,” one of his tent mates would later write of Churchill, “unabashed, frankly egotistical, communicating its excitement, and extorting sympathy.” (Doubleday)

“He said, after he won his first election right after he got back from South Africa, that [he won] because of his popularity,” Millard says.  The Empire had lost battle after battle to an enemy they had anticipated defeating with ease. Churchill’s successful evasion rejuvenated British hopes of victory.

Millard’s skill at humanizing larger-than-life figures like Roosevelt and Churchill, not to mention her deft aggrandizement of a lesser-known man like Garfield, reveals her literary wizardry. But she says that’s just a product of using a lot of primary sources. “It’s very, very important to me that people know absolutely everything is factual. That’s why I say you can go back and look for yourself.” Her notes pages exhaustively cite sources for every quotation and detail. 

Millard also travelled to South Africa and retraced parts of Churchill’s route with John Bird, a local Churchill enthusiast who managed the coal mine at Witbank until his retirement. “He showed me, ‘I think that’s the hill where [Churchill] hid, and he was waiting for the sun to go down so he could get some water. I think he must have gotten water right here,’” Millard says. The two emailed for years, and Bird proofed large portions of her manuscript for accuracy.

It was there on the African veld, waiting for the sun to set, that we see Churchill as most human. “His famously strident confidence had left him, leaving behind only the impossibility of finding his way to freedom, or even surviving the attempt … desperate and nearly defeated, Churchill turned for hope and help to the only source he had left: his God,” Millard writes.

The author glances at the table filled with black and white 8x10s of her visit to the Amazon’s River of Doubt during her Roosevelt research. While she was writing about Roosevelt’s near-loss of his son Kermit on that expedition, her own child was gravely ill. “I was so desperate and so scared, and you suddenly feel this connection to this larger-than-life person,” she says quietly. “But you live long enough and you’re going to have those moments of self-doubt or fear or sorrow or grieving or simply desperation. And I did absolutely sense that with Churchill when he’s on the veld. When he’s alone, he’s scared, he’s got no help, he’s lost hope, he doesn’t know what to do and he doesn’t know where to turn, he gets down on his knees and prays for guidance. I think that’s incredibly relatable.” 

What Do Insects Do in Winter?

Smithsonian Magazine

We humans survive the icy throes of winter with warm coats, space heaters and hot chocolate. Insects, however, have a few more creative strategies up their sleeves. Whether it’s special proteins that act like the antifreeze in your car, body fluids spiked with alcohol instead of water or gearing up for long-distance travel to warmer climes, it seems that these hardy bugs have developed their own answers to the biological problems winter poses.

You’ve likely heard of one the most common ways insects make it through this darkest and coldest season: time travel. "Either they escape in space, which means they migrate, or they escape in time, which means they become dormant," says Scott Hayward, an invertebrate biologist at the University of Birmingham. "The vast majority actually becomes dormant."

To survive the wintertime shortage of food and warmth, mammals like bears and chipmunks tend to hibernate. While hibernation is often thought of as a deep sleep, it’s actually a biologically distinct state of dormancy: Hibernating animals stock up on food and reduce their metabolisms through processes that aren’t still fully understood. NASA researchers are even looking into techniques that could induce hibernation in humans, to help astronauts make it through years-long space journeys.

Insects have their own version of this powerful tool: diapause. Similar to hibernation, insects preparing to enter diapause will usually try to seek some kind of shelter from the cold, says Hayward, who has done extensive research on insect dormancy and survival in extreme environments. That often means burrowing underground (consider the fact that, in winter, hundreds of insects might be lying dormant just inches beneath your feet), but can also mean finding shelter in trees trunks or under rocks.

Some insects, like the European corn borer, have managed to frustrate farmers and intrigue entomologists by finding ways to live aboveground in the winter. This notorious corn pest boasts an extreme tolerance for cold, even more so than hibernating species. Studies have found that borer larvae can even survive being supercooled for several minutes to -40 degrees F. The borer balls up within corn stalks or corn cobs, and is able to survive even when the water inside its body (though not within its cells) freezes.

Other insects stock up on the antifreeze. In Antarctica, the flightless Antarctic midge produces large amounts of sugars in its cells, which lower the freezing point of liquids. Simultaneously, the midge allows the freezing soil around it to draw out nearly every drop of water in its body. "The insect becomes completely dehydrated," Hayward says. "Then, it can't freeze." This helps the miniscule bug—which is both the only insect and the largest land animal on that continent—resist freezing altogether.

The arctic woolly bear moth spends roughly 90 percent of its life in a frozen state. The moth caterpillar also accomplishes this feat by producing sugar—specifically, the alcohol glycerol. In the same way that vodka can be stored in the freezer and remain liquid, these liquids don’t freeze, preserving the tissues of the moth larvae and allowing it to survive at temperatures dipping down to -70 degrees F. The Alaska Upis beetle can withstand temperatures reaching down to a shocking -100 degrees F, by producing a special “antifreeze molecule.”

But the majority of insects aren't so tenacious. Around - 30 degrees F is a typical limit for many species, Hayward says. That’s why many insects have ranges limited to more tropical areas of the world that never experience freezing temperatures, like the bug-ridden Amazon or mosquito-rich countries in Africa, South America and Asia.

European corn borer larvae can survive the winter frozen inside stalks of corn. (WILDLIFE GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo)

Global warming, however, may soon change that maxim and threaten insect populations around the world. As the Earth warms overall, insects are shifting toward the poles to colonize areas that are warmer than before in the summer months. Yet many of these insects lack the ability to survive the colder winters found in these regions.

"Where they can't do that, they can't become established," Hayward says. Meanwhile, toward the equator, warmer temperatures are disrupting other insects’ diapause cycles.

Though diapause is an adaptation to survive the winter, temperature is not the main factor that triggers it. Instead, shorter days in the lead-up to winter help signal to the insects' bodies that it's time to get ready for dormancy. As the days stay warmer later into the fall, insects' bodies get confused. Mistakenly thinking that it's spring or summer, they often end up aborting the diapause process to begin looking for food or mates—which leaves them unprepared for when winter actually strikes, Hayward says.

Why should humans care? Consider the well-known plight of bumblebees, a vital pollinator for many species of plants and agricultural crops. Already struggling against habitat loss and pesticides, bee populations are now also battling changing seasons. Warming temperatures cause not only later autumns, but also earlier springs, which can confuse one very important member of the hive: the queen.

Queen bees are the only hive inhabitants that typically enters diapause. They typically awaken once a year, in spring, and leave to forge a new colony. But with spring often starting earlier, however, hives are reaching the size at which a new queen will be born and attempt to found a new colony before the winter has begun, rather than at the start of spring. Their offspring are then left struggling to find flowers to feed on in the dead of winter, and must deal with temperatures they have not evolved to handle.

"You've got massive levels of mortality," Hayward says, "and you've [then] got fewer pollinators the following year."

There are myriad other ways that insects have developed to beat the cold. But when the going gets tough, some insects don’t get tougher—they just leave. The monarch butterfly, for instance, is well-known for its colorful and awe-inspiring wintering strategy: taking hundreds and hundreds of its best friends and heading thousands of miles toward the equator to avoid cold temperatures.

"There are really an unbelievably diverse number of ways they survive winter," Hayward says.

It's your turn to Ask Smithsonian.

Crowds Are Much Smarter Than We Suspected

Smithsonian Magazine

If hell is other people, as Jean-Paul Sartre suggested, then going to a packed baseball game should be the worst kind of agony. Sartre’s line is often taken out of context—he was no misanthrope—but the view that people become uncivilized, mindless or stupid when they gather in large numbers is still widely held.

Sporting events can seem to reinforce that stereotype. After the Giants’ World Series victory last year, parts of San Francisco resembled a battle zone as thousands of raucous fans lit street bonfires, set off fireworks and hurled bottles at police. Given such events, the instinct of governments and law enforcement organizations is usually to try to control crowds—even if they are peaceful gatherings—lest they do something dangerous. Often, though, it is far better to let people regulate themselves and adapt to their environment, according to a growing body of evidence on the intelligence of crowds.

You can see crowd smarts in action just by watching pedestrians in a shopping mall, at a busy train station or walking down a congested street. Mehdi Moussaid, who studies collective behavior at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, has spent many research hours doing just that. He quickly discovered that traditional crowd models, which assume we move randomly like particles in a gas or fluid, are way off the mark. Instead, people in crowds display complex adaptive strategies and seem to exercise a collective intelligence.

For example, in one study his team found that groups of three or more pedestrians walking through a crowd often adopt a reverse-V formation when the crowd reaches a certain density, “because this is the only way for every group member to see all his friends with a simple head movement,” Moussaid says. He has also found that to avoid bumping into each other, pedestrians instinctively pass each other on the same side—either they all veer to their right or to their left.

Whether they pass to the right or left appears to depend on which country they are in. In most European countries, it’s to the right; in Japan, to the left. This suggests that “side preference,” as Moussaid calls it, correlates with driving rules—but that’s not always the case. In central London, where motorists drive on the left, people tend to filter to the right when using the stairs to underground train stations. It’s possible the high proportion of foreign tourists in the city center sets the rule, though on the streets throughout the city, the side preference is also to the right. The rest of the U.K. seems undecided, while the U.S. seems to differ from city to city.


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How are these walking norms determined? This is Moussaid’s theory: “They arise mostly from a learning process. It’s a random process in the beginning. At first, people have no side preference and avoid equally on the left- or right-hand side, depending on the situation. Over repeating interactions, however, pedestrians tend to reproduce what they experienced in previous encounters. For instance, if I meet three people avoiding on the right-hand side, I will spontaneously avoid the fourth person on the same side. Because every pedestrian is learning in the same way, the norm will propagate from one individual to another, eventually leading to a collective consensus for the same side.”

This is a good illustration of how spontaneous self-organizing behavior can result in a highly efficient system. On very crowded walkways, people end up filtering into two opposing lanes, like a pedestrian highway—think of Fifth Avenue or Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon. These flow relatively unhindered until someone gets bored with the slow pace and tries to overtake, at which point the lanes quickly shred into tangled ribbons and the order breaks down. This suggests that deviating from a crowd’s behavioral norms can be a bad idea: Crowds are intelligent, so long as they are cohesive.

This Halloween, Spend a Ghoulish Night (or Day) at the Smithsonian

Smithsonian Magazine

From stiletto daggers and sexy witches to devilish hydras and sea serpents, there's no end of scary stuff to spook yourself and your date silly here at the Smithsonian. Costumes are encouraged and if you don't feel safe going out on Halloween, stay home and make a virtual appearance.

1.     “Halloween Changes Its Disguise: Has the Witching Season Grown Up?”
Just do a quick search of female Halloween costumes and you’ll be bombarded with outfits like “sexy policewoman,” “sexy nurse,” or even “sexy lobster.” This trend of “sexy” is nothing new. In fact, in the early 20th century, Halloween postcards featuring sexy witches were quite popular among the ladies. Daniel Gifford, author of American Holiday Postcards, 1905-1915: Imagery and Context will speak about these Halloween postcards and how the holiday has changed (or not changed) over the course of time. The event is Oct. 27 at 6:45 pm at the S. Dillon Ripley Center. Tickets are $25.


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2.    Monsters Are Real

The myth of the half-fish, half-woman creature has existed for centuries, but it didn’t materialize from nowhere. In fact, early explorers like Christopher Columbus claimed to see mermaids, but what they actually saw were manatees. The Biodiversity Heritage Library is doing an online social media campaign called “Monsters Are Real” to explore stories, books and animals that inspired monsters such as the mermaids, Kraken, Leviathans, Hydra and sea serpents. Follow @BioDivLibrary on Twitter and their Facebook page for updates on their six blog posts from Oct. 27-31. You can also explore their Flickr collection of historic monsters and enjoy animated GIFS on the Smithsonian Libraries Tumblr.

3.    Fear at the Freer

Start your Halloween festivities early in the evening at Fear at the Freer! Learn about the spooky objects in their collection like Emperor Jahangir's meteorite dagger, create a scary mask and eat from the Tokyo in the City food truck. Stay for the screening of “Ringu,” the Japanese horror movie that inspired the making of “The Ring.” The event is Oct. 31 at 5 pm. Free. Costumes are encouraged.

Smithsonian Gardens is kicking off #SpookyPlantsWeek filled with odd, creepy-looking plants. (Smithsonian Gardens)

4.    Ghoulish Gardens

In celebration of Halloween, Smithsonian Gardens is kicking off #SpookyPlantsWeek filled with odd, creepy-looking plants, such as the parasitic Himalayan Balanaphora, a tongue-twister of plant that masquerades as a toadstool. The Tacca chantrieri, better known as the bat flower, has black flowers and long whiskers and can be seen at the Ripley Center kiosk entrance. Look out for doll’s eyes if you find yourself at the Bird Garden in Natural History this week, it’s hard to miss those eyes following you around the garden. From Oct. 27 through Oct. 31, Smithsonian Gardens will post a new plant on Facebook, some of which you can view online and others that you may find in the gardens. You can also follow their Twitter @SIGardens for updates.

Acclaimed author Sandra Cisneros has created an installation in the tradition of "Dia de Muertos" to honor her mother, Elvira Cordero Cisneros. (National Museum of American History)

5.    Sandra Cisneros exhibit

The acclaimed American author, Sandra Cisneros, created an installation, “A Room of Her Own: My Mother’s Altar” as part of the “American Stories” exhibition at the American History Museum. The installation is in the tradition of “Dia de Muertos” and honors her mother who never had a room to herself until the last 10 years of her life.  The installation runs from Oct. 31 to January 12, 2015. Free.

Practiced primarily in Mexico, El Día de Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, traces its origins to both Spanish and indigenous influences. (National Museum of the American Indian)

6.    Day of the Dead Celebration

And calling all New Yorkers, continue the spirit of Halloween and make your way to Smithsonian’s Day of the Dead Celebration at the American Indian Museum Heye Center at One Bowling Green across from Battery Park. The Aztecs believed after someone passed away on Earth, they spent four years journeying through nine levels before reaching Mictlan, the resting place of the departed. At the museum's Washington, D.C., location, you can explore these levels through music, dance, food and activities Nov. 1-2 from 10:30-5 pm. The museum's New York City event will run Saturday Nov. 1 from noon to 5 pm. Free.

In Mexico, El Día de Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, traces its origins to both Spanish and indigenous influences. (National Museum of the American Indian)

7. Virtual Celebrations of Day of the Dead

If you aren’t able to attend the festival in NYC, join in on the celebrations via the Smithsonian Latino Virtual Museum. From Oct. 27-Nov.2, enjoy events such as a live webcast via the Latino Centers UStream channel featuring the behind the scenes altar installation by artist Sandra Cisneros. You can also look forward to a 3D experience in Second Life, an avatar based virtual world and even build you own virtual altars. The interactive commemoration hosted by the Smithsonian Latino Center in collaboration with the University of Texas at El Paso allows people all over the world to participate in this rich, informative celebration.

Meet the Diverse and Bizarre “Stars” of the Deep Sea

Smithsonian Magazine

Fragile and otherworldly, the brittle star is named for its delicate, spindly limbs. A member of a group called the Ophiuroids, this lesser-known cousin of the sea star lurks throughout the ocean bottoms, even thriving in the dark, cold and nutrient-poor reaches of the deep sea.

With upwards of 2,000 living species, brittle stars are providing scientists with a glimpse into the diversity of the oceans—particularly the motley crew of deep sea creatures found more than a mile beneath the water’s surface, a distance of 10 Washington Monuments stacked atop one another.

“The deep sea has been a bit of a mystery until now” says Timothy O’Hara, deputy head of marine sciences at Museum Victoria in Australia. Oceanic expeditions, costly and time intensive, have only sampled a fraction of the great blue seas.

So with the brittle stars as his muse, O’Hara is leading an effort to develop a database of marine biodiversity worldwide. His team’s global map of brittle stars, published today in Nature, could help lead future conservation efforts as changing climate and human development threaten deep habitats.

Since tackling every ocean species worldwide is a monumental task, O’Hara and his team focused on the humble brittle stars, collecting historical records from 1,614 oceanic expeditions spanning the last century.

Map of all where historical expeditions collected each of the 2,099 species used in this study. Yellow indicates samples taken at depths greater than 1.2 miles. (Tim O’Hara)

But these records were often riddled with inaccuracies, both because of changes in species names and misidentifications. So the scientists visited museums around the world—in Moscow, Tokyo, Berlin, Washington, D.C., and more—to examine first hand the species described in the records.

In the end, they compiled a global database detailing the distribution of almost a million brittle and basket stars—brittle star relatives with impressively branching limbs. But the data was still spotty.

You have these snapshots of what is down there on the deepest part of the ocean and somehow you have to extrapolate,” says biologist Camilo Mora who studies biogeography at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

So the researchers turned to some “pretty fancy statistics” to overcome the patchiness, O’Hara explains. The image that emerged revealed that patterns of biodiversity unexpectedly differ at different water depths.

On land, the tropics burst with biodiversity. This is where you find the Amazon, for instance. But as you move to the poles, the variety of species declines. The same pattern was previously assumed to hold in the oceans.

Creatures that linger in waters up to a mile down follow this pattern, but the denizens of the deep don’t. In the ocean’s depths, biodiversity peaks in a band found between 30 and 50 degrees both north and south of the equator, O’Hara and his team found.

This nearly translucent brittle star, Macrophiothrix spongicola, was collected in southern Australia. (J. Finn)

Scientists have long linked biodiversity with the sun. Brilliant sunlight spurs plant growth, allowing energy to ripple up the food chain. And since the tropics get the most sunlight, that region gets the most energy deposited into its system, driving a diverse web of species.

But sunlight doesn’t penetrate much below a half mile deep in the ocean. Deep-dwelling creatures mainly feast on a steady rain of dead phytoplankton—microscopic algae that grow on the surface. Phytoplankton derive their energy from the sun, but sunlight is only one ingredient; these organisms also need nutrients. The region where the brittle star biodiversity peaks is an area rich in nutrients.

The study, of course, isn’t without caveats. The records spanned more than a century of exploration, and it’s possible that species diversity may have changed over that time. The need for statistical extrapolations also has its limitations.

“There are always going to be concerns...with this kind of analysis when you are dealing with data that are so disperse and limited,” says Mora, who was not involved in the study. “Of course it’s possible that [the patterns] could change as we add more data,” he notes.

But the need for the high powered statistical methods is a reality of the field. And the methods O’Hara and his team used are among the best that can be done with the available numbers, Mora adds.

These ghostly brittle stars, Ophiocamax hystrix, also inhabit Caribbean waters up to 1,000 meters deep. (Smithsonian Institution/Harbor Branch Oceanographic)

“It costs a fortune to go to sea,” says O’Hara. He ballparks that researchers would need $4 to $5 billion to resurvey the entire planet and collect the same number of samples collected in the past. His team’s study was possible only due to the carefully preserved specimens housed in museums around the world.

“Our collections are not simply a bunch of old things that are getting dusty,” says David Pawson, a senior scientist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. As this study shows, they are an often untapped wealth of information.

O’Hara has great ambitions for the future of this project. “This is just the first step,” he says. The team hopes to get a better handle on the boundaries for the ranges of specific species as well as trace their genetic ties.

This project is an important step in learning to care for the deep sea. “We’ve done essentially nothing for deep sea conservation,” says Pawson. But such efforts become increasingly vital as fishing and mining operations encroach on these relatively untouched habitats.

The rules for conserving life in the deep sea are different than the rules for conserving shallow life,” he says. Only with continued efforts will we ever hope to learn these laws of the deep.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Butterfly Drawings Take Flight in This New Book

Smithsonian Magazine

Vladimir Nabokov might be best known as a novelist, specifically as the author of Lolita, but what many might not know is that one of his deepest passions was studying butterflies. 

Now, a new book from Yale University Press honors his dedication to the delicate creatures. The book, Fine Lines, is a collection of more than 150 of his scientific illustrations of butterflies, rivaling John James Audubon in their detail.

Nabokov began collecting butterflies when he was seven years old and continued his study of the insects his entire life. He dreamed of naming a butterfly since he was a child, Elif Batumen writes for the New Yorker. Thanks to his diligence, he named several, most notably a species called the Karner blue (Lycaeides melissa samuelis).


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Even so, Nabokov’s studies sometimes proved controversial. In Fine Lines, the editors Stephen Blackwell and Kurt Johnson lament that Nabokov was never taken seriously by professional scientists and entomologists because of his literary career.

Take, for example, Nabokov’s hypothesis of the evolution of a group of butterflies called “Polyommatus blues.” After making many detailed observations of these North American butterflies, Nabokov proposed that the species had evolved from an Asian species over millions of years as they traveled to the Americas in waves.

For decades, scientists chided this idea, and few lepidopterists took him seriously, Carl Zimmer wrote for the New York Times. In 2011, however, a group of scientists decided to test his proposal with DNA analysis and discovered, to their astonishment, that Nabokov had been right all along.

“I couldn’t get over it—I was blown away,” Naomi Pierce, one of the study authors, told Zimmer at the time.

Nabokov once called literature and butterflies “the two sweetest passions known to man,” according to The Guardian, and in many ways his two loves informed each other. Over the course of years, Nabokov and his wife, Véra, racked up thousands of miles crisscrossing the U.S. in search of butterflies, during which time he began making notes that would later turn into Lolita, Landon Jones writes for the New York Times:

His travels over the years took him from the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon to Utah, Colorado and Oregon. But one of the best places to find many different species of butterflies congregating at one time was at nosebleed-high altitudes along the Continental Divide in Wyoming. Along the way the shape of the novel took root, and he started to take notes during his butterfly hunts and write them up back in his motel rooms.

Nabokov’s contributions to the study of butterflies may have been small compared to his literary accomplishments, but his appreciation for the delicate beauty of the creatures may have been the magic that gave many of his novels wings.

h/t The Guardian

Stunning Black-and-White Photos of the Nazca Lines

Smithsonian Magazine

The Nazca Lines have puzzled the world since Peruvian archeologist Toribio Mejia Xesspe discovered them in the 1920s. Now they are back in the news after Greenpeace activists added a note to the famous geoglyphs during recent climate talks. Ignoring law that prohibits entrance to this delicate portion of the Peruvian desert, activists laid out cloth letters reading "Time for Change! The Future is Renewable. Greenpeace." Though the activists claim they were careful to not disturb anything, the area they entered is off-limits without a permit and special shoes: the ground around the lines is simply too dry and fragile to be trod upon without first taking painstaking precautions.

One man who knows a thing or two about the fragility of the lines—and the delicate act of both documenting and preserving them—is Edward Ranney, a photographer whose book The Lines, released last August, catalogs the mysterious geoglyphs of the Nazca culture in Peru, as well as cultures in Chile's Atacama Desert, in stunning black-and-white photographs. Ranney has been photographing archeological sites and ancient, pre-Columbian architecture in Peru and Mesoamerica since the 1960s. 

"A lot of people are really outraged, and rightly so," Ranney says of Greenpeace's actions. "Any time anyone walks on the pampa, those footprints don't go away—[the lines] are there because it never rains there. It brought a lot of attention suddenly to the lines, to the Nazca, but it did so in a very unfortunate way."

The Lines looks at the famous Nazca geoglyphs—scratched into the desert more than 1,000 years ago—from a unique perspective: ground-level. Most photographs show the geoglyphs from an aerial view, emphasizing their scale (some are as large as the Empire State Building). Ranney's photos instead show the lines as someone from the Nazca culture, using the lines for religious reasons, might have encountered them.

"Most of the pictures that we see of the lines are taken from airplanes, and it emphasizes the graphic nature and real mystery of how these things came into being," Ranney says. "My interest, because I couldn't get high enough to photograph from the air, was the foothills. I wanted to stick to working to the ground. And I found that the more I saw different patterns, the more intriguing it became, because these lines really change the landscape. For a landscape photographer, it's an exciting project to go into these areas and work in these spaces that is somewhat forbidding and most contemporary travelers don't even get near."


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Ranney began The Lines as part of a much broader survey of ancient architecture along the Peruvian coast in 1985. He quickly realized that these desert areas fit perfectly into the canon of work he had been producing since a 1964 Fulbright trip: recording ancient, previously unarchived architecture and sites.

"I realized that no one had looked at this [area] visually and tried to create a fairly comprehensive archive of sites in black-and-white photographs that could stand as references and also as their own artwork," Ranney explains.

The Nazca lines aren't the only ancient structures Ranney has photographed. A new exhibition at the New Mexico Museum of Art, North to South, celebrates Ranney's career of photographing Inca and Maya cultures. The show, on view until April 19, includes more than 40 images from his decades of travel and work—work that, to Ranney, is far from complete. 

"There's continual research in the Andean region, which is really exciting because there is more and more discovered every year," Ranney says. "That's why I continue to photograph, because my survey is not yet done."

How to Make Science Fiction Become Fact, in Three Steps

Smithsonian Magazine

While speakers at the first day of Smithsonian magazine’s fourth annual “Future is Here” festival shared their thoughts on subjects as diverse as computer programming, the Zika virus, human space exploration, the future of the internet and the state of global fisheries, they all shared a common thread: there’s hope. Never give up—even if you have to wait a long time.

“Who will be the next President of the United States?” Smithsonian’s editor-in-chief Michael Caruso asked a Magic 8 Ball as he opened the day of TED-style talks on Saturday. “The future is notoriously difficult to predict. But never before has the distance between imagination and reality been so close, and the predictions scientists are making aren’t wild fantasies.”

Smithsonian magazine's editor-in-chief Michael Caruso kicks off the day. (Richard Greenhouse Photography)

Caruso welcomed a roster of visionaries including Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder of the MIT Media Lab; Martine Rothblatt, founder of Sirius Radio and United Therapeutics; Vint Cerf, Google’s “chief internet evangelist” and co-developer of modern internet connection protocols; and former NASA astronaut Tony Antonelli, who helps Lockheed Martin shape its human spaceflight initiatives. Two of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s granddaughters, Céline and Alexandra Cousteau, also took the stage to talk about their respective work in the Amazon and with the world’s oceans.

Sisyphean perseverance emerged as the theme of the day, encouraging those despairing visionaries out there, eager for the day when technology (hopefully) makes their ideas possible.

Rothblatt, obsessed with all things space for most of her life, said her whole focus shifted after her daughter Jenesis was diagnosed in 1994 with life-threatening and incurable pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH). She founded United Therapeutics in 1996 after doing a deep-dive into potential treatments and convincing Burroughs Wellcome (and later GlaxoSmithKline) to allow her to license a compound, treprostinil, they’d shelved in favor of an easier-to-manufacture drug. 

Rothblatt founded United Therapeutics in 1996 after her daughter Jenesis was diagnosed with life-threatening pulmonary arterial hypertension. (Richard Greenhouse Photography)

With no background in biotech, Rothblatt pursued a PhD in medical ethics even as she worked, at great personal cost and expense, with pharmaceutical scientists to develop treprostinil into a drug. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ultimately approved the drug, Remodulin, in 2002.

“I gave one doctor the money he said he needed to make it, and he finally produced half a gram,” Rothblatt told the audience. “But we needed dozens of grams for animal studies, hundreds of grams for animal studies, and, ultimately, hundreds of kilos to help people across the country. So we put the pedal to the metal.”

Today, Rothblatt’s company, United Therapeutics, annually produces enough drugs for tens of thousands of patients, including her daughter, who can now live out their lives beyond the three-year life expectancy once given at diagnosis.

“We’ve never turned away a patient who can’t pay,” she said. “We will give that medicine to them for free. It hasn’t stopped us from being a successful pharmaceutical company—we’ve found that doing the right thing helps you do the best thing.”

Actor William Shatner appeared as a surprise guest. (Richard Greenhouse Photography)

In a special appearance, actor William Shatner said that though science fiction can lay the groundwork for the future, progress is not always made with computer wizardry and bubbling test tubes. He spoke about recently witnessing an unusual and unexpected experiment in progress.

“We write and we think about all these highfalutin futuristic things that are going to take place, but buried in the basement of a small building in Philadelphia there are dogs sniffing for cancer in vials of blood,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the future as imagined by a show called 'Star Trek.'”

Vint Cerf, Google's "chief internet evangelist," made some predictions about the "internet of things." (Richard Greenhouse Photography)

Google’s Vint Cerf described how the genesis of the internet was, at heart, a bottom-up enterprise. Built to satisfy a military defense agency that needed a cost-effective communications network compatible with a range of computer brands, Cerf said that four decades of evolution shed some light on what is yet to come.

“The thing you carry in your pocket once took an entire van to do,” Cerf said, holding up a cell phone. “Now we’re faced with a new invasion, devices you wouldn’t expect to be part of the internet environment. I used to tell jokes that every lightbulb will have its own IP address. Well, now I can’t joke about that.”

In the current day, between 3 and 3.5 billion people use three to five devices every day, Cerf said, for a global total of 10 to 15 billion devices. Looking into a future where an “internet of things” connects humans and a host of objects, it’s completely reasonable, Cerf said, to predict that by 2036, the planet will have 8 to 10 billion users, and the average person will use or interact with around 100 devices per day, from phones to tablets to embedded sensors. That adds up to one trillion devices.

“We need to get smarter about how we use our resources,” Cerf said. “How we gather our data can really make a difference.”

To that end, he described Google’s ongoing projects using innovative sensing, from contact lenses that can measure a diabetic’s glucose level, to ingestible nanobots to diagnose disease from inside the body. Like the trucks used to test out network connectivity in the 1970s, Cerf suggested today’s cutting-edge technology only has room to shrink.

“3D printers today are large and clunky, but over time those printers could make smaller and smaller stuff,” Cerf said. “Maybe one day the 3D printers can print even smaller printers, eventually printing at the molecular level.”

And, of course, Google is working on making sure internet works in space, too.

Alexandra Cousteau, an environmental advocate and granddaughter of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, spoke about the world's oceans. (Richard Greenhouse Photography)

In the year of the 40th anniversary of the Viking mission to Mars, Lockheed Martin’s Antonelli said today’s space missions are paving the way for the next steps, including an asteroid retrieval program and the Orion spacecraft, which will eventually take humans to Mars. (People took selfies all day with a quarter-scale replica of the Orion at the festival.)

In addition to the current missions surveying Mars, including the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, which takes its own surveys of the Martian surface as well as relays messages between Earth and the Martian rovers, there’s also Maven, a Martian atmospheric observatory, and Juno, which will arrive at Jupiter this summer to map the planet’s atmosphere and magnetic and gravitational fields.

Osiris-Rex (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer) will launch this fall destined for the asteroid Bennu, Antonelli said. Close enough to reach, large enough to land upon, and old enough that it reflects the early composition of the solar system, Bennu is thought to hold the molecular ancestors of life on Earth, but also whizzes scarily close to our planet on a regular basis. The samples from the Osiris-Rex mission will help scientists plan for a possible impact intervention mission, and also help aspiring asteroid miners know what resources they might find.

Despite the fact that new space missions are popping up one after another, it’s today’s students who will one day be making the next big steps into space.

“Keep in mind, that the first person to go to Mars is in school today,” Antonelli said. “Well, maybe not today, since it’s a Saturday,” he added. 

Is America exceptional? A business history curator's perspective

National Museum of American History

How appropriate that the day after a story describing the work culture at Amazon made national news, the Wall Street Journal published Edward Rothstein's review of the Smithsonian's new business history exhibition–American EnterpriseThis coincidence of timing proves the Smithsonian's point that American capitalism is an important topic affecting all citizens of the United States.

Photograph of the exhibition's Merchant Era section with Red River Cart

As a curator of the National Museum of American History's exhibition, I believe that the print version of Rothstein's article, with its headline, "A People's History of American Business," rather than the online "A Skewed History of American Business," better reflects the point of the show. The exhibition is a new interpretation of business history that puts the average citizen (the consumer) squarely in the center of the picture. This is, after all, an exhibition for all Americans. American Enterprise succeeds in presenting a complicated story in a public museum. It chronicles the tumultuous interaction of capitalism and democracy that resulted in the continual remaking of American business and American life. The exhibition presents the benefits of American business, which have been extraordinary, along with its failures and unanticipated consequences. America is a great country because its economic system has benefited many, but it is far from perfect.

The exhibition is intended to be a thoughtful exploration. It presents provocative moments, respects the visitor's ability to make their own decisions, and argues that the United States is built on the dynamic tension between opportunity (capitalism) and common good (democracy.) In a recurring exhibition element called "Debating Enterprise," famous individuals duke it out over the role of business in America. Agriculturalist and states' rights advocate Thomas Jefferson argues with Alexander Hamilton, who pushes for a national industrial policy and a strong federal government (sound like a familiar debate?). Elsewhere the likes of Louis Brandeis, Ayn Rand, Robert Reich, and even Ivan Boesky get a seat at the table.

Photo of napkin with handwritten text on it

Spectacular objects from three centuries of American history give material substance to the story of American business—something only the Smithsonian can do. A rare Edison talking doll provides insight into how Americans' cultural willingness to forget failure and remember success allows icons like Thomas Edison to take risks and stoke innovation. The often talked about but almost never seen Laffer curve napkin was pulled from the safety deposit box of Wall Street Journal editor Jude Wanniski (1936-2005), gifted to the nation, and exhibited along with Milton Friedman's briefcase to illustrate how Reaganomics helped define the Global Era. The exhibition allows visitors to decide for themselves whether deregulation and supply-side economics are good or bad. A museum should be a safe place for debate and American Enterprise allows visitors to engage in important conversations.

Rothstein is uncomfortable with "history 'from below'." He appears to question the notion of diversity—not of color but of fame and class. In the 21st century, an exhibition should highlight both famous and lesser-known Americans, who all have compelling business stories to tell. Our museum surveys show conclusively that visitors come to see themselves and understand how they fit into history. The exhibition's biography wall, which includes more than 80 "capsule biographies," is designed as a catalyst for engaging visitors and not a pedantic history textbook. Yes, the text is short, but it is readable and engaging. Visitors who want more can pull out their smartphones and learn more while still in the museum. Among others on the biography wall are organic food entrepreneurs Myra and Drew Goodman (founders of Earthbound Farms)—just feet away from genetic engineering and sustainability advocate Robert Fraley (inventor of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans). Financial wizard Warren Buffett smiles at restauranteur Dora Escobar, who escaped a grim life in El Salvador and eventually built a number of small businesses in the U.S. These are all great stories of interesting people and the quest for the American dream, through our system of capitalism and democracy.

Photo of exhibit wall with portraits of people and text boxes with bios

Rothstein worries that the exhibition does not detail the exploits of businesses from around the world. The exhibition explicitly points out that American business was international from the colonial era onward. Importantly, we intentionally focused on what is distinctive about American business and why it is exceptional. For over 150 years, our nation has been a leading and vibrant economy. American Enterprise explores our unique mix of labor, wealth, power, success, and failure. 

Photograph of the exhibition's Global Era section

Our main point is that American capitalism is central to who we are as a nation, and as a people. We want visitors to decide for themselves the degree to which innovation and competition have provided opportunity and fueled the common good. The exhibition clearly caused Rothstein to do some deep thinking. Come visit American Enterprise and explore the history of American business along with us. If you can’t make it to Washington, D.C., you can see the exhibition online or read the companion book.

Peter Liebhold is a co-curator of the American Enterprise exhibition and chairs the Work and Industry Division at the National Museum of American History. 

Posted Date: 
Tuesday, August 18, 2015 - 06:45


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14 Fun Facts About Manatees

Smithsonian Magazine

Despite their size and stubbly snout, manatees seem cute and cuddly to many ocean visitors. These large, slow-moving marine mammals hang out in coastal areas and rivers where Florida spring-breakers can easily see them and think that it is a good idea to hop on for a ride. Not only is this and other forms of harassment such as hugging the sea creatures illegal (the West Indian manatee is listed as endangered in the United States), but it can also impact manatees’ natural behavior, changing the way they interact with humans.

All three species of manatee—the Amazonian manatee, West Indian manatee, and West African manatee—and the related dugong are considered vulnerable (defined as facing a high risk of extinction in the wild) by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This is due to a variety of threats including boat collisions, hunting, habitat destruction, and toxic red tides.

It's unclear if the manatees’ sweet looks can save them. In their favor is the fact that we’re no longer deliberately chasing them down, unlike how humans hunted to extinction their long-lost relative, the Steller’s sea cow, in the 18th century. But even slight disturbances to their lifestyles can do irreparable harm.

If you see a manatee this spring break, look but don’t touch.

1. Manatees are typically found in shallow coastal areas and rivers where they feed on sea grass, mangrove leaves, and algae. These herbivores munch on food for almost half the day, eating ten percent of their body weight in plant mass every day. With weights of up to 1,200 pounds, that is a whole lot of greenery!

2. West Indian (Trichechus manatus) and West African (T. senegalensis) manatees spend their lives on the cusp between salty and fresh water. They are able to maintain the correct balance in their bodies through an internal regulation system that works with the kidney to make sure salt concentrations never get too high. It is believed that West Indian manatees require some access to freshwater (PDF) in order to stay hydrated, but they are able to easily move between the two ecosystems.

A West Indian manatee, always curious, investigates a kayak in Florida. (Mwanner via Wikimedia Commons)

3. Warm water is a must for the West Indian and West African manatee species. With low metabolic rates and minimal fat protection from cold water, they stick to water that is 60 degrees or warmer. They may look fat and insulated, but the large body of the manatee is mostly made up of their stomach and intestines! In colder months, they find their way to warm river tributaries or warm water outputs from power plants. In 2010 at least 246 manatees died in Florida due to cold stress from the colder-than-normal winter.

4. Manatees go to the surface of the water every three to five minutes to breathe although they can remain underwater longer, holding their breath for up to 20 minutes. When they do take a breath, 90 percent of the air in their lungs is replaced (whereas humans tend to replace about 10 percent).

5. The Amazonian manatee (Trichechus inunguis) lives entirely in freshwater rivers throughout South America in the Amazon Basin. It is hard to estimate their numbers due to their secretive nature and the murky water where they often live. A fourth dwarf manatee species was described in the mid-2000s, but this claim was called into question and it is believed to actually be a juvenile Amazonian manatee. The main threat to this species is illegal harpoon hunting for subsistence.

6. Dugongs (Dugong dugon), in the same order (Sirenia) as manatees, spend all of their time in coastal ocean waters of the Indian Ocean and western Pacific and they don’t ever venture into freshwater. Although they look similar to manatees, dugongs have a more whale-like fluke compared to the round, paddle-like tail that you see on manatees.

The dugong, in the same order as manatees, has a distinctive snout and a fluked tail. (Julien Willem via Wikimedia Commons)

7. The closest living relatives of sirenians are elephants. Manatees evolved from the same land animals as elephants over 50 million years ago and the fossil record shows a much more diverse group of sirenians than we have today, with dugongs and manatees living together throughout their range. 

8. Humans have one round of baby teeth and then if we lose or hurt an adult tooth, a trip to the dentist is in order. Manatees, like their elephant relatives, continuously replace their teeth throughout their lives with the older teeth at the front falling out and new teeth growing in at the back of their mouth.

9. Researchers believe that the now-extinct Steller’s sea cow (the largest member of the order Sirenia) was at one point found throughout the Pacific, in waters off Japan and the U.S. west coast. In 1741, Georg Wilhelm Steller first described the sea cow from islands off the coast of Russia (in what would later be called the Bering Sea) as subsisting off of kelp and not being able to submerge underwater. Within 27 years of first being described, the species was driven to extinction by hunting and competition for their kelp food source with an exploding urchin population. 

An 1846 illustration of the extinct Steller’s sea cow, which was much larger than manatees or dugongs. (J.F. Brandt via Wikimedia Commons)

10. Christopher Columbus and other early explorers claimed to have seen female figures swimming in the ocean—the mermaids in the writings and drawings of this era. Whether they had been at sea for too long or it was a trick of the light, we now know that many of these encounters were with manatees.

11. Manatee brains are smooth (compared to our own that have the familiar ins and outs of cortical folds) and the ratio of their brain to their body size is the lowest of any mammal. They may not be as clever as dolphins, but manatees can learn basic tasks, are extremely sensitive to touch and can differentiate colors.

12. Female manatees usually have one calf every two to five years and the calf then stays and nurses for two years. Calves nurse from their mother’s teats, which are found right where the forward limbs meet the body. The calves also can start nibbling on plants at only a few weeks old.

13. If you are a mammal—whether that’s a human, giraffe, whale or rat—then you typically have seven neck vertebrae. Only tree sloths and manatees have an irregular number of vertebrae—just six for the manatee. Scientists think this may have to do with their slow metabolism.

14. Manatees have no natural predators in the wild but humans have played a large part in making all three species at risk of extinction. About half of West Indian manatee deaths are caused by humans, and most are due to boat collisions. Manatees are quite buoyant and use their horizontally placed diaphragm and breathing to control their buoyancy. This and their average speed of 3 to 5 miles per hour means that manatees are way too slow to escape from the path of a speeding boat.

Learn more about the ocean from Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal.

A Recap of Our Five Favorite New Species of 2013

Smithsonian Magazine

New species of insects, fungi, spiders, plankton, plants and even small mammals and reptiles are pretty commonplace. If you have enough expertise and spend enough time in the field, you are almost certainly guaranteed to uncover a new species, even if you're searching in an urban center or an already well-explored country.

Finding a larger animal--a new bird or carnivore, for example--is a much rarer event. But such discoveries do happen, especially as genetic studies are drawing a much finer line between science's traditional definition of what is and is not a species. Sometimes those new species turn out to be right below our noses, in museum collections or long-ignored field anecdotes.

Whether discovered using genetic sequencing or traditional field sleuthing, here are five of the most sensational species reveals of the year:

"Pook-Pook!" Otus jolandae. Photo by Philippe Verbelen

Otus jolandae, Indonesia's new owl that cries 'pook'

In 2003, two different researchers were exploring Lombak, an island in Indonesia, and both coincidentally picked up on the cry of an unfamiliar owl species.

Locals were well aware of the little owl, whose native name translated as "pook." The owl's distinct cry helped the researchers gather more information; they used recordings of its call to attract other owls and photograph them. The birds turned out to have very different feather patterns than similar owls on nearby islands, and locals living on other islands did not recognize the Lombak species' distinct call, either.

In February, they finally had enough evidence to declare the owl a unique species. One of the researchers named it after his wife, Jolanda.

The elusive olinguito was finally given its species due in August. Photo by Mark Gurney

Bassaricyon neblina, the raccoon-like mammal that evaded detection for a century 

Time and time again, scientists inadvertently missed out on identifying this species of small carnivorous mammal.

Colloquially referred to as the olinguito, it looks a bit like an elongated teddy bear with a button nose and lives in the mountainous rainforest in Colombia and Ecuador. But humans had ample contact with it; museum specimens abounded, researchers had seen it in the wild and it had even been kept in captivity at a few zoos in the U.S. And yet, no one noticed that it was a new species, instead grouping it with other raccoon relatives, the olingos.

A team of Smithsonian researchers finally sorted the case of mistaken identity out, however, after they noticed discrepancies between museum specimens. Then, they headed down to South America where they identified and studied the animal in the field. It turns out the olinguito is so wide-ranging that it is actually composed of four sub-species.

The animals were officially declared unique in August, making them the first new carnivore in the Americas to be added to the species list in 35 years.

"Jump for joy, we're a new species!" says the Australian humpback dolphin. Photo by Mendez et al.

Humpback dolphins, the species that jumped from two to four 

It's not every day that newly discovered members of one of the most popular and beloved of animals, the dolphin, splashes into the headlines. By carrying out some genetic sleuthing, researchers doubled the species count of humpback dolphins, confirming that what was two species is actually four.

What likely started as one species of dolphin eventually diverged into four related but genetically distinct animals, whose divergence was driven by vast distance. The animals look quite similar but their mitochondrial DNA is different enough to warrant unique places on the tree of life.

The newest species, which lives in waters off of Australia, is already inspiring local pride and enthusiasm for protecting it. The country has expressed interest in writing legislation specifically for protecting its new dolphin (which still awaits a scientific name), and the hope is that other countries can likewise design their own management frameworks to protect their own special animals.

L. guttulus, winner of this year's most adorable new species contest? Photo by Projeto Gatos do Mato – Brasil, Current Biology

Leopardus guttulus, Brazil's new house kitty-sized wild feline

In another win for the geneticists, researchers found that L. tigrinus--which also answers to the names tigrina, oncilla and little spotted cat--is actually two species occupying different parts of the jungle.

The team looked at genetic data from the cats and found that it has been many, many years since they mingled--so many, in fact, that they have diverged enough genetically to call for distinct species labels.

In addition, the new southerly species has been getting friendly with Geoffroy’s cat, another spotted feline friend. Whether or not those hybridizations result in a new species, however, will be the work of future scientists.

Tapirus kabomani, the mammal the locals knew all about

For more than a century, local people living in the Brazilian and Colombian Amazon have spoken about the "little black tapir," a type of large jungle herbivore distinct from its larger relatives. Scientists, however, ignored them. Until, that is, one research came across a strange-looking tapir skull and followed his hunch that something was amiss.

When he visited the jungle, he employed the locals to collect more specimens, and listed to their stories about the smaller tapir they regularly hunted. Photos, videos and genetic evidence published recently confirmed they were right all along, and for the first time since 1865, a new species of tapir was declared. Although the new tapir appears dwarf-like next to its larger relatives found in South American and Asia, it is quite an exciting holiday gift for biologists: it now counts as one of the largest mammals in South America.

Pulitzer-Prize Winning Author John McPhee Recalls Alaska Before Cell Phones, GPS and Most of Its National Parks

Smithsonian Magazine

There may be no richer account of Alaska’s great outdoors than John McPhee’s Coming into the Country. His precise language and deft reporting on the place and its people took the longtime New Yorker writer to new heights, earning him a National Book Award nomination. Four decades after the book’s first printing in 1976, McPhee glances back at those early days. From his home in Princeton, New Jersey, he told Smithsonian Journeys quarterly’s associate editor Sasha Ingber about how it all started, from meeting the locals who would become central figures in his book to the sweetness of Alaska snow.


Coming into the Country

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I read that you once took a job at a firm that shipped products, partnered with Pan American Airways, and produced paper from sugarcane—and that you were attracted to “this incredible array of stuff they did.” You also wrote about an “incredible array of stuff,” including geology, truckers, oranges, a basketball player. But what drew you to environmental subjects, such as the upper Yukon region of Alaska in Coming Into the Country?

I went to a summer camp, Keewaydin, in Vermont, from age 6 to 20, ending up as a swimming instructor and canoe-trip leader there. The place specialized in canoes and backpacking, and had an in-camp program that I have described as a “classroom of the woods.” A high percentage of my thematic choices for pieces of writing derive from Keewaydin, and certainly all the environmental subjects, including Alaska.

Beyond your camp years in Vermont and friendship with a park planner, what made Alaska’s Yukon region so intriguing to you?

On my first trip up I accompanied some National Park Service people who were holding hearings in the region of the Upper Yukon. In Circle, Ginny and Ed Gelvin, who lived 33 miles away, told me I should get to know real Alaskans. I said, “So take me home with you.” They did—right after the hearings. The Gelvins would become central figures in Coming Into the Country.

In Eagle I had said to a trapper named Richard O. Cook, “If I come back here someday, will you talk with me?” He said, “Maybe.”

In the 1970s, before cell phones, Google maps, and the establishment of most of Alaska's national parks, what did you expect this remote state to be like? How was it different or similar to what you imagined?

John Kauffmann, on visits back to the East, had told me countless stories about people in Alaska, so they're what I expected. The geography—the wild vastness of Alaska—was something I thought I understood on paper but did not in any tangible sense expect.

(Courtesy of John McPhee)

Can you share something surprising that you learned about the area or its people while researching? And does it still hold true today?

I remember playing volleyball outdoors with schoolkids in Eagle at 15 below zero and peeling garments until I was playing in a T-shirt. Such a scene was in large part enabled by a lack of wind. The absence of winter wind up there—in the coldest and hottest part of Alaska—was phenomenal. Dry snow in amounts the size of large loaves of bread would build up on each bough of spruce. The snow was so light and dry that you could walk over to a tree, blow on one of those loaves of snow, and—poof—it would vanish. Happy birthday.

You’ve mentioned that your bias is toward the environmental movement. Did the reporting and writing of Coming Into the Country play a role in shaping your environmental awareness?

Not so much shaping as enhancing, I suppose. But my purpose was to present the various sides of the environmental issue and let the reader do the judging.

Have you returned to Alaska since writing the book? If so, how recently and where?

Three times. The hardest thing about what I do is saying farewell to what I’ve done—in this instance as much as any other. When two of my daughters were in college, I took them on a 500-mile canoe trip up there. When Eagle turned 100 as an incorporated community, the town asked me to come to the celebration. That was in 1997. I haven't been back to Alaska since.

Is there one moment that you sometimes look back on from when you were in Alaska?

After three years of long visits, I made a three-mile, midnight walk on the frozen river on my last night there. I still see the green aurora, millions of stars hanging like grapes. The memory makes me both happy and sad.

John Paul Jones and His Romantic Romp Through Paris

Smithsonian Magazine

When American naval officer John Paul Jones arrived in Paris in 1780 at age 33, he quickly became (according to Abigail Adams) “a favorite amongst the French Ladies.” Jones is best known today for his heroic service in the American Revolution and (possibly) uttering the phrase “I have not yet begun to fight!” But he also was a boldly flirtatious figure, perhaps surpassing Benjamin Franklin as a ladies man. As a newcomer to the French salon scene, however, his flirtations could lead him into some treacherous waters.

When Abigail Adams arrived in Paris in 1784 to join her husband on his diplomatic mission she initially was surprised by the appearance of the vaunted hero. “From the intrepid Character he justly Supported in the American Navy,” she wrote to her sister, “I expected to have seen a Rough Stout warlike Roman.” He was only around 5-feet-5-inches tall, so small that Abigail would “sooner think of wrapping him up in cotton wool and putting him into my pocket, than sending him to contend with Cannon Ball.”


Founding Friendships: Friendships between Men and Women in the Early American Republic

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Nonetheless, Abigail saw much to praise in him. He was “a Man of Gallantry” who knew how to compliment women and could advise them on “what coulour best suits a Ladys complextion” and what make-up to use. Indeed, Jones knew as much about women’s dress and make-up as he did “the Masts Sails and rigging of a Ship.” Underneath his gentle manners, however, Abigail concluded that he was “Bold enterprizing ambitious and active.” He was perfectly suited to attract the elite women of French salons, who frequently had male friends and lovers. A visiting Englishwoman named Caroline Edes reported that the ladies were “wild with love for him.” “He is the most agreeable sea-wolf one could wish to meet with,” Edes concluded.

Jones reciprocated the Frenchwomen’s affections, and one biographer notes that in this period Jones’ letters are “so full of discreet longings and tiny pouts that the smell of perfume almost emanates from the page.” Jones knew that, unlike in America, he could flirt with, befriend, and even have affairs with the women he met. But he singled out one woman in particular as the object of his affection: the 26-year old Charlotte-Marguerite de Bourbon, Madame La Comtesse de Lowendahl.

The Comtesse de Lowendahl had befriended Jones at a salon and hoped to take advantage of the relationship to advance the career of her husband, an unemployed military officer. While at Versailles with Jones, she painted a miniature of Jones in his naval uniform and gave it to him as a gift, just before he had to leave Paris in the late spring of 1780.

Painting and gifting a miniature portrait was a seen as a romantic gesture in the United States. Not so, in a mix-up John Paul Jones encountered in France. (Mark Gulezian, National Portrait Gallery)

In America, the exchange of a miniature was a romantic gesture, and Jones certainly understood Lowendahl’s gift in this light. The Countess, on the other hand, had no such intentions, even though a mutual friend had hinted to Jones that Lowendahl was unhappy in her marriage. Jones saw an opening and wrote a letter to Lowendahl on June 7, 1780, from aboard his ship at Nantes. He was saddened at having to leave Paris (only “the Glorious cause of Freedom” could have torn him away from her) and declared: “You have made me in Love with my own Picture because you have condescended to Draw it.”

Jones then moved from self-love to romantic love, hinting that he had heard that the Comtesse was having marital troubles and enclosed a special cypher so they could write one another secret love letters. He also requested a copy of her miniature to wear, sent a lock of his hair, and concluded, “If I could send you my Heart itself or any thing else that could afford you pleasure it would be my happiness to do it.”

Lowendahl was surprised, if not offended, at Jones’ romantic gesture. Had he sent the cypher to the wrong person, she wondered? She replied tersely. Jones had misunderstood her, and while she was flattered at his offer, she couldn’t reciprocate “without deceiving a gentleman with whom I live.”

Jones was mortified.

How could she have thought he had written to the wrong person? If it was the cypher that bothered her, he said, perhaps he had gone too far. But he didn’t back down; rather, he demurred that the cypher would be useful in case their letters fell into the enemy’s hands while he was at sea. As for asking for her miniature, he denied that it was a romantic gesture. “As Friendship has nothing to do with Sex, pray what harm is there in wishing to have the picture of a Friend?” he asked. Of course, sex was exactly what he had been after. This seems to have been the end of his relationship with Lowendahl.

It was not the end of the story of Lowendahl’s miniature of Jones, however. In 1973, Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery acquired a miniature believed to be the very one the Comtesse had painted nearly 200 years earlier. Recent research, however, has brought that into question. A number of miniatures of Jones exist, including several whose artists are still unknown and could also be the Lowendahl piece.

One promising possibility is an unlocated miniature, known only through a photograph, which supposedly was handed down through Jones’s family. It shows Jones surrounded by the words “at versailles 1780—commodore paul jones drawn by one of his greatest admirers.” Below, in French, it praises his exploits: “Avenger of justice and liberty, only his heart could lead him to victory. Exalted Jones, he serves humanity, three nations, is the hero of all.” Could this more florid tribute to Jones be the piece Lowendahl created?

Thus the material relic of this thwarted love affair is still drawing the attention of scholars. Jones, who once admitted, “my desire for fame is infinite,” likely would not mind at all. The mystery of his miniature is certainly an opportunity to bring Jones back into the headlines, but more importantly, it offers a window into the tangled world of men, women, love and friendship in the 18th century.

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