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New Graphic Novel Writes the Wright Brothers' Sister Back Into History

Smithsonian Magazine

Four elementary school students know there’s something terribly askew when they win a trip to visit Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. For starters, the museum’s name is all wrong—it’s not the National Museum of the Air and Winds, right?

Also why has everything from Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis to the Wright Flyer, the world’s first airplane, been replaced by hot air balloons? It’s a mystery that the young sleuths must unravel in The Wrong Wrights, the first graphic novel in the new educational adventure series called Secret Smithsonian Adventures written by Chris Kientz and Steve Hockensmith with illustrations by Lee Nielsen and published by Smithsonian Books.

The mixed up, jumbled up tale brings to the foreground the lesser-known history surrounding the familiar tale of the Wright Brothers—Wilbur and Orville, who tinker and find flight—highlighting their younger sister and biggest supporter, Katharine. spoke with co-author Steve Hockensmith about creating the series, which he describes as a fusion of Doctor Who and Scooby-Doo.

Tell me about the first time you visited a Smithsonian museum?
Oh wow. It would have probably been around 1978. My uncle and his family lived in Maryland, not far from the DC area, and we would go visit them every other summer. One of these summers, we went to National Air and Space Museum. Not to smack talk any other Smithsonian museum, but it was far and away my favorite. I loved the place for a few different reasons. I had a lot of interest in history, especially military history. Going in and seeing all the planes—they weren’t an image on a TV screen, but right there, up close, in real life. It was just fascinating to me. I was a nerd kid, a big Star Trek fan. It was a very special moment to stand next to the USS Starship Enterprise.

Image by Courtesy of Smithsonian Books. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Smithsonian Books. (original image)

Where you always interested in comic books? 
It's funny; it was right around that exact same period I started reading comic books….Green Lantern was one of my favorites. He’s a test pilot, which is interesting to think about now that I say this.

I absolutely always had a fondness for that form; I read comics and graphic novels on and off over the years. Within me always was the desire to write one, myself. I just never had the right opportunity. The business side of breaking in is rough; it's a very hard industry to get a foothold in. I was really lucky. My partner on this, Chris [Kientz], he had connections with Smithsonian and knew there was an opportunity to do graphic novels. He knew I was a published author and had done kid books lately and brought me in.

How did you first meet Chris? 
This is a crazy coincidence; our sons went to the same elementary school in Alameda, California. But not only are we guys in the Bay area, who happened to be involved in publishing for kids, we also had other weird connections. He had worked on The X-Files and I had been the editor for the X-Files Official Magazine, so there’s a chance in 1998, I walked by him on a set in Vancouver, not realizing all these years later I would publishing books with him.

Did you always know you wanted to start the series with the National Air and Space Museum? 
I can't recall why, but it was immediately obvious that we would start with the Air and Space Museum. My recollection of it is I went away and came up with three ideas and brought back this, this or this, and The Wrong Wrights would always be number one.  I bet a lot of it was that I did have this childhood trip there. I remember it so vividly. There was something to me so inherently exciting about the history of that, and so the opportunity to play with that it just rose to the top.


The Wrong Wrights (Secret Smithsonian Adventures)

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I loved learning about the pivotal role that the Wright Brothers’ sister, Katharine, played in their history. How did you first learn about her? 
It was Chris, I believe, who mentioned her. When I came with The Wrong Wrights, I knew that someone was going to try to mess with the invention of airplanes. He was like, "That's great, there's this unsung sister. We've got to get her in there." I myself was unaware of how important she was—I like history and I dabble in history, but Chris has an amazing encyclopedic knowledge in history, and he knew about Katharine and he knew about the [Hudson-Fulton] exposition and he knew about the airship guy [Tom Baldwin] and the rival airplane development guy [Glenn Curtiss].

Talk to me about how you came up with the Smithsonian Archive Interface Facilitator, or “Smitty,” who helps the students when they time travel. Was the character based on any real-life curators?
He was literally a device. I'm trying to remember how he came about, probably over nachos. We were spitballing what would be the ongoing elements in the series. We liked this idea of always tying into the Smithsonian—the kids having a go-to link. Smitty is the personification of that; he is the Smithsonian, all its collected knowledge almost literally at their fingertips. But we wanted it not to be just an information dump, we wanted a personality because knowledge is an exciting thing; history is an exciting thing. We’re trying to make learning fun. You’ve gotta have the fun and gotta have the learning.

What influenced you when you created the Secret Smithsonian Adventures’ world? 
We knew that we’re trying to do a graphic novel series for the kids, and we wanted them to interact with history and learn through the Smithsonian, in some way. They go there and time travel. So what are they doing? Why do they go to these places? All of this in a way builds on itself. Certain things influence consciously or subconsciously. Doctor Who was in my mind, what it used to be. I still have a great love in my heart for anything that has a time travel element, so being a Star Trek fan that was also in my mind. The way I envisioned how the kids stepped into the past, it's very much for me like when the holodeck door opens and there's this whole other place where you're really there. I liked doing it that way, it’s like an exhibit, but you can walk into it, which is a lovely metaphor for Smithsonian.

I also think of Scooby-Doo—you can find a million of examples where small kids go off and learn things, Magic Tree House for a younger age group, and I’m sure you can find others. For me, the one set in stone is the Scooby-Doo Mystery Inc. gang, a group of meddling kids who save the day.

For a story about the Wright Brothers, the reader never gets to know the real brothers. Was that a conscious decision on your part?
I knew almost instantly that the bad guys would be impersonating the Wright Brothers. If Katharine’s brothers were actually there, then they would have to have something to do and have the chance to talk. Before you know it, phew, you’ve added 15 pages. It kept things simpler.

Did you get to explore the Smithsonian’s archives to research The Wrong Wrights?
That was something we'd talked about, how much we would love to do it. Logistically, it wasn’t possible for this one, but once we turned in our stuff, it was reviewed by experts at the Smithsonian, both at the script stage and arts stage. They provided notes and I’m pleased too that we didn’t need a lot of corrections.

The last page talks about the liberties that The Wrong Wrights’s story takes with history. Why did you decide to change certain details like moving the location of their flight from Governor’s Island instead or Battery Park?
There were certain logistics, like we needed the kids to walk from where the planes had launched to Manhattan, so that streamlined the story.

You have two kids of your own, what do you hope they and other readers take away from this story? 
I hope that kids enjoy it, and it sticks with them in terms of little-known details, like Katharine. There are so many people forgotten by history. It’s incredibly important for us to look back and recognize and ask why that person got forgotten. Why was it simpler, more convenient for people to tell these stories that way for all these years?

Can you tell me about any future Secret Smithsonian Adventures?
The next one is called Claws and Effect and it’s about dinosaurs and somebody who is trying to make sure the dinosaurs don’t go extinct, and so havoc ensues. Then, tentatively, Treason by George, where George Washington becomes king.

Outrageous Postcards and Ads of Snowmen Gone Wild

Smithsonian Magazine

Like some of man’s oldest forms of folk art, the snowman is, and always has been, a byproduct of man’s primal instinct to depict himself in art, be it a cave painting or a sculpture made out of snow. A frozen Forrest Gump, he’s a reflection of our own development. The snowman’s history spans the Renaissance, the early years of the American colonies, even the Franco-Prussian War. But one of his most intriguing eras was the “Dean Martin Years,” a period of excessive drinking and questionable activity.

What caused the snowman to go on the binge? This lost weekend for the snowman comes after a period of being treated poorly at the turn of the 20th century. The snowman was the tormented target of boys and girls and persons of all walks of life. Evidence of his suffering comes from many sources. The 1890s book Young Folk’s Cyclopædia of Games and Sports describes a variation of the nineteenth century game “Aunt Sally,” in which children score points by throwing snowballs at a snowman (instead of throwing sticks at a scarecrow named Aunt Sally). Polls taken by Journal of American Folk-Lore a few years later show that “making the snow-man a target” was among young boys' favorite activities along with squat tag and “stealing hot biscuits.”

There is also visible evidence in trade cards, beautifully illustrated pieces of paper that were the business cards of their day. Shop owners would leave them on their counters for customers and collecting them became a popular hobby. Like so many other advancements in the world -- including the first photographs and early silent movies -- the snowman was right there, showing up front and center. And more often than not -- taking a beating. With the popularity of postcards by the turn of the century, it was no different; images of snowmen pelted with snowballs by gangs of scamps and wayward youths plowing their sled or pig-driven toboggans into snowmen (that’s right, there used to be pig-driven toboggans).

Image by Picturetown Collection. A 1910s Happy New Year postcard depicts a child running over a snowman. (original image)

Image by Picturetown Collection. A 1927 postcard depicts a snowman with a bottle in one hand and a stick in the other. (original image)

Image by Picturetown Collection. A festive 1919 Happy New Year postcard with people surrounding a giant snowman. (original image)

Image by Picturetown Collection. Young boys pelt a snowman with snowballs (original image)

Image by Picturetown Collection. In a rare late 19th century German engraving by Hans Dahl, girls throw snowballs at a snow cop. (original image)

Image by Picturetown Collection. A 3-D postcard from the 1920s shows a tipsy snowman. (original image)

Image by Picturetown Collection. Perhaps not the original LOLcat, but this photograph of a snowman with two kittens was published in Child Life in 1935. (original image)

Image by Picturetown Collection. The snowman as a spokesman for Sunny Brook Whiskey. (original image)

Image by Picturetown Collection. Where is the adult supervision? This snowman is surrounded by children as he drinks in a Christmas card painted by Pauli Ebner. (original image)

Image by Picturetown Collection. The snowman on a matchbook hauling a large bottle of Mt. Whitney beer. (original image)

Image by Picturetown Collection. Originally appearing in Life Magazine, this advertisement had the snowman pitching Phillips' milk of magnesia (original image)

Some of these early postcards show snowmen being bludgeoned by two-by-fours and stomped on by tots. There are examples of snowmen being held up by gunpoint by little girls and stabbed with brooms. At one point, a snowman is dragged into a studio and forced to pose with kittens—while not violent, it was certainly humiliating. But the ultimate indignity would have to be a holiday card showing Santa Claus in a convertible racing car running over a horrified snowman, who is screaming for dear life.

To add insult to injury, the snowman somehow became a spokesperson for any product of an embarrassing sort, appearing in ads for every personal hygiene problem imaginable: dandruff, gas, hangovers, constipation, and bad breath Add this all up and you have a Frosty with a pretty shaken psyche. We literally built him up only so we could, apparently, knock him down and use him as a piñata. It’s no wonder the snowman turned to booze.

While no one knows for sure when exactly the snowman began smoking a pipe and drinking hard liquor, it may have started as early as 1890, based on a label from a bottle of whiskey from that year. An 1898 postcard shows a snowman carrying two bottles of champagne off to an office party. On holiday greeting cards from the 1900s through and on (up to the 1930s), the snowman often has a drink in one hand and a pipe in the other, mirroring our society’s changes and America’s fascination with smoking and drinking. This would eventually escalate to the snowman cavorting with women and offering drinks to minors. One could argue that these depictions were, in a way, humanizing, but seeing a tipsy snowman chasing a girl with a stick is disturbing at best.

By 1908, there was clear evidence of his partying ways were out of control. In the silent movie The Snowman by Wallace McCutcheon, a chain-smoking snowman is swigging whiskey and appears in the rest of the film sloshed, inspiring a flogging by the townspeople. This behavior would continue on film and media through magazines and postcards as a pickled, skirt-chasing, under-the-table lush. In other words, he had become a frozen W.C. Fields. By the ‘30s and ‘40s, there is no question, the two started to look alike, both wearing straw hats, putting on more weight and looking more round and sporting crimson noses. And both enjoyed prolific silent movie careers based on their reputations as charming drunks. It’s hard to say if either had copied from the other but they were both enhanced by the other’s notoriety. Ironically, W.C. Fields hated the holidays and passed away on Christmas Day, 1946.

This image of the snowman soon became lucrative. By the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the snowman had become the pitchman for almost every leading liquor company. He appeared in print ads for Miller Beer, Ballantine Ale, Rheingold Beer, Schlitz, Schenley, Oretel’s Lager Beer, Chivas Regal Scotch, Fort Pitt Pale Ale, Mount Whitney Beer, Jack Daniel’s and Four Roses. Success soon went to his big head and he became quite the lady’s man. He was a media star, posing for cheesecake publicity shoots, popping up on girlie calendars and matchbook covers. It was commonplace to see a deliriously happy snowman flirting with bikini-clad starlets and celebrities like Shirley Temple, Dinah Shore, and Esther Williams.

Eventually the snowman would clean up his act, and his motivation for drying out is clear: to cash in on the next advertising front. The snowman’s saturation in booze ads catapulted him to become a marketing kingpin. Wearing nicer scarves and a classier silk top-hat, the snowman branched out to hock everything under the sun -- from Cadillacs to tuna, booties to insurance, even asbestos. The prevalence of those earlier snowman-gone-wild days is now a distant memory as our society insists children’s beloved holiday icons adopt a more proper decorum.


The History of the Snowman

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A Rare Insider's View of Native American Life in Mid-20th-Century Oklahoma

Smithsonian Magazine

Horace Poolaw never aspired to have his photographs in museums, or to even be printed large enough to frame. 

A member of the Kiowa tribe, Poolaw had just one show in his lifetime, at the Southern Plains Indian Museum in his hometown of Anadarko, Oklahoma.

He printed a few as post cards to sell to tourists—sometimes with the inscription on the back “A Poolaw Photo, Pictures by an Indian,”—but it was never clear whether his intention was merely to depict his people or promote their tradition.

Indeed, most of the images taken over five decades and now on view in the exhibition “For a Love of His people: The Photography of Horace Poolaw,” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C., had never been printed at all until after his death in 1984. The show is co-curated by Native scholars Nancy Marie Mithlo (Chiricahua Apache) and Tom Jones (Ho-Chunk). Mithlo also served as general editor of the exhibition catalogue and Jones contributed an essay.

Critical recognition came only after his daughter Linda Poolaw started to organize an exhibition at Stanford University in 1989. Experts began taking a closer look at the negatives he had left behind. Only then did Poolaw, who had documented the life of native peoples in rural Oklahoma, emerge as a primary and significant Native American photojournalist of the 20th century.

According to Alexandra Harris, an editor on the project, his work was found to be more noteworthy because it was a time when “Native Americans became invisible in the national visual culture. We believe that Poolaw’s photography really fills part of that gap.”

Although photography was only a hobby for Poolaw, he used a secondhand Speed Graphic camera —the kind that newspapermen used throughout most of the 20th century— to journalistically capture scenes of everyday life on the reservation. His images include ordinary birthday parties and family gatherings, but also stunning portraits of returning military veterans, tribal celebrations and especially the annual American Indian Exposition that still continues in Anadarko.  

It was important, Harris says, that Poolaw worked not as an outsider looking in, but as part of the community.

“There were very few Native photographers in the early to mid-20th century, witnessing their communities, and the diversity of what he saw, as an insider,” she says.

As such, he captured a time when Native culture was in transition, and people were assimilating on their own terms—not in the forced way that had come earlier. At the same time, tribes were changing, bringing back and embracing elements of their native customs and language that had been banned on the reservation.

The Horace Poolaw exhibition, which first debuted in 2014 to 2015 at the Gustav Heye Center, the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City, reflects that combination of cultural influences, as in a scene of a parade heralding the start of the 1941 American Indian Expo that features a trio of women in Kiowa regalia riding not horses, but a shiny Chevrolet. 

It’s a more stark contrast in a portrait of smiling Oklahoma broadcaster Danny Williams, standing next to champion Indian dancer and painter George “Woogie” Watchetaker in full Comanche regalia and headdress. A tipi stands behind them, but also a parking lot with late model cars.

Ceremonies not tied to the expo are also chronicled, from the circle at a 1945 powwow in rural Carnegie, Oklahoma, with some in Western wear and cowboy hats and others in traditional shawls, an American flag flying in the cloudy sky and a few sedans comprising the rest of the arc.

Even less formal, and more immediate in its reality, is the funeral of Agnes Big Bow, a Kiowa tribe member in Hog Creek, Oklahoma, in 1947, where the pallbearers, many in western gear and hats are placing the Western-style casket into stony cemetery ground. 

The intersection of the tribe and the U.S. military was an important one for Poolaw and it is the image of his son Jerry, on leave from duty in the Navy in 1944, in uniform but with his full feather headdress that is the main image of the exhibition.

That same year, Poolaw himself poses alongside another Kiowa, Gus Palmer, in front of a B-17 Flying Fortress at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa where he was trained at an aerial photographer—their traditional headdresses contrasting with their uniforms.

Still, the war bonnet, as it was sometimes known, was not just a fancy accoutrement, but one earned by valor by tradition, and serving in the military certainly counted.

“Three hundred Kiowa men were in active duty in World War II and when they came back after having experiences in battle with which they could earn valor, they could earn the honors that the old military societies would give them,” Harris says. “So they reenstated some of these societies, and it brought back a lot of the material regalia culture that came with it.”

Children are a poignant subject matter in his photographs—whether they dress up in 20th-century tweed coats and ties, cowboy attire or native regalia. 

The blending of Native culture into the wider realm of entertainment could be seen in the career of Poolaw’s brother Bruce who went on the vaudeville circuit as Chief Bruce Poolaw and married fellow performer Lucy Nicolar, a Penobscot woman and mezzo-soprano who was known as “Princess Watahwaso.” Naturally, they’d pose theatrically for Poolaw, as well.

Another striking example of modern Western tastes colliding with traditional Native culture is in the photos of Hannah Keahbone, who wore makeup and had her hair in a bob that was fashionable in the 1920s and 30s, alongside her mother sandy Libby Keahbone, in more traditional braids and no makeup. 

Laura E. Smith, an assistant professor of art history and visual culture at Michigan State University who specializes in Native American art and photography, writes in the catalog accompanying the exhibition that though both are wearing traditional Kiowa regalia in the double portrait, it shows how women of the tribe “negotiated the terms for female identity among themselves.” 

Capturing moments like this, Poolaw was inspired more by Life magazine photojournalism than the kind of Native portraits intended for museums. Poolaw didn’t intend to make deep sociological points about the people he portrayed—although his photographs often end up doing so. 

“He never really wrote down why he did things. So we really have to guess,” Harris says. “In conversations with his daughter, she talks a lot about his love of these people. And it could be as simple as him acting as a witness for his time. ”

“For a Love of His People: The Photography of Horace Poolaw”  continues through June 7, 2017 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall, Washington D.C. The show is co-curated by Native scholars Nancy Marie Mithlo (Chiricahua Apache) and Tom Jones (Ho-Chunk). Chair of American Indian studies at the Autry National Center Institute and associate professor of art history and visual arts at Occidental College, Mithlo also served as general editor of the exhibition catalogue. Jones, an associate professor of photography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, also wrote an essay for the catalogue.

UPDATE 11/30/16: An earlier version of this story misattributed quotes to another of the exhibition's curators. The quotes are from Alexandra Harris. We regret the error.

Would Astronauts Survive an Interstellar Trip Through a Wormhole?

Smithsonian Magazine

In the space opera Interstellar, astronauts seeking to save humanity have found a lifeline: a wormhole that has mysteriously appeared next to Saturn. The tunnel through spacetime leads to a distant galaxy and the chance to find habitable planets that humans can colonize. The movie's wormhole is based on real physics from retired CalTech professor Kip Thorne, an astrophysics pioneer who also helped Carl Sagan design his wormhole for the novel Contact. The visualizations are stunning and are being hailed as some of the most accurate simulations of wormholes and black holes in film. But there is one aspect of plunging into an interstellar express that the film doesn't address: How do you survive the trip?

Although they didn't call it such, the original wormhole was the brainchild of Albert Einstein and his assistant Nathan Rosen. They were trying to solve Einstein's equations for general relativity in a way that would ultimately lead to a purely mathematical model of the entire universe, including gravity and the particles that make up matter. Their attempt involved describing space as two geometric sheets connected by "bridges," which we perceive as particles.

Another physicist, Ludwig Flamm, had independently discovered such bridges in 1916 in his solution to Einstein's equations. Unfortunately for all of them, this "theory of everything" didn't work out, because the theoretical bridges did not ultimately behave like real particles. But Einstein and Rosen's 1935 paper popularized the concept of a tunnel through the fabric of spacetime and got other physicists thinking seriously about the implications.

Princeton physicist John Wheeler coined the term "wormhole" in the 1960s when he was exploring the models of Einstein-Rosen bridges. He noted that the bridges are akin to the holes that worms bore through apples. An ant crawling from one side of the apple to another can either plod all the way around its curved surface, or take a shortcut through the worm's tunnel. Now imagine our three-dimensional spacetime is the skin of an apple that curves around a higher dimension called "the bulk." An Einstein-Rosen bridge is a tunnel through the bulk that lets travelers take a fast lane between two points in space. It sounds strange, but it is a legit mathematical solution to general relativity.

Wheeler realized that the mouths of Einstein-Rosen bridges handily match descriptions of what's known as a Schwarzschild black hole, a simple sphere of matter so dense that not even light can escape its gravitational pull. Ah-ha! Astronomers believe that black holes exist and are formed when the cores of exceedingly massive stars collapse in on themselves. So could black holes also be wormholes and thus gateways to interstellar travel? Mathematically speaking, maybe—but no one would survive the trip.

In the Schwarzschild model, the dark heart of a black hole is a singularity, a neutral, unmoving sphere with infinite density. Wheeler calculated what would happen if a wormhole is born when two singularities in far-flung parts of the universe merge in the bulk, creating a tunnel between Schwarzschild black holes. He found that such a wormhole is inherently unstable: the tunnel forms, but then it contracts and pinches off, leaving you once more with just two singularities. This process of growth and contraction happens so fast that not even light makes it through the tunnel, and an astronaut trying to pass through would encounter a singularity. That's sudden death, as the immense gravitational forces would rip the traveler apart.

"Anything or anyone that attempts the trip will get destroyed in the pinch-off!" Thorne writes in his companion book to the movie, The Science of Interstellar


The Science of Interstellar

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There is an alternative: a rotating Kerr black hole, which is another possibility in general relativity. The singularity inside a Kerr black hole is a ring as opposed to a sphere, and some models suggest that a person could survive the trip if they pass neatly through the center of this ring like a basketball through a hoop. Thorne, however, has a number of objections to this notion. In a 1987 paper about travel via wormhole, he notes that the throat of a Kerr wormhole contains a region called a Cauchy horizon that is very unstable. The math says that as soon as anything, even light, tries to pass this horizon, the tunnel collapses. Even if the wormhole could somehow be stabilized, quantum theory tells us that the inside should be flooded with high-energy particles. Set foot in a Kerr wormhole, and you will be fried to a crisp.

The trick is that physics has yet to marry the classical rules of gravity with the quantum world, an elusive bit of mathematics that many researchers are trying to pin down. In one twist on the picture, Juan Maldacena at Princeton and Leonard Susskind at Stanford proposed that wormholes may be like the physical manifestations of entanglement, when quantum objects are linked no matter how far apart they are.

Einstein famously described entanglement as "spooky action at a distance" and resisted the notion. But plenty of experiments tell us that entanglement is real—it's already being used commercially to protect online communications, such as bank transactions. According to Maldacena and Susskind, large amounts on entanglement change the geometry of spacetime and can give rise to wormholes in the form of entangled black holes. But their version is no interstellar gateway.

"They are wormholes which do not allow you to travel faster than light," says Maldacena. "However, they can allow you to meet somebody inside, with the small caveat that they would both then die at a gravitational singularity."

OK, so black holes are a problem. What, then, can a wormhole possibly be? Avi Loeb at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics says our options are wide open: "Since we do not yet have a theory that reliably unifies general relativity with quantum mechanics, we do not know of the entire zoo of possible spacetime structures that could accommodate wormholes."

A still from the Interstellar trailer shows the flower-like Endurance spaceship approaching the wormhole. (Paramount Pictures and Warner Brothers Entertainment, in association with Legendary Pictures)

There's still a hitch. Thorne found in his 1987 work that any type of wormhole that is consistent with general relativity will collapse unless it is propped open by what he calls "exotic matter" with negative energy. He argues that we have evidence of exotic matter thanks to experiments showing how quantum fluctuations in a vacuum seem to create negative pressure between two mirrors placed very close together. And Loeb thinks our observations of dark energy are further hints that exotic matter may exist.

"We observe that over recent cosmic history, galaxies have been running away from us at a speed that increases with time, as if they were acted upon by repulsive gravity," says Loeb. "This accelerated expansion of the universe can be explained if the universe is filled with a substance that has a negative pressure … just like the material needed to create a wormhole." Both physicists agree, though, that you'd need too much exotic matter for a wormhole to ever form naturally, and only a highly advanced civilization could ever hope to gather enough of the stuff to stabilize a wormhole.

But other physicists are not convinced. "I think that a stable, traversable wormhole would be very confusing and seems inconsistent with the laws of physics that we know," says Maldacena. Sabine Hossenfelder at the Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics in Sweden is even more skeptical: "We have absolutely zero indication that this exists. Indeed it is widely believed that it cannot exist, for if it did the vacuum would be unstable." Even if exotic matter was available, traveling through it may not be pretty. The exact effects would depend on the curvature of spacetime around the wormhole and the density of the energy inside, she says. "It is pretty much as with black holes: too much tidal forces and you get ripped apart."

Despite his ties to the film, Thorne is also pessimistic that a traversable wormhole is even possible, much less survivable. "If they can exist, I doubt very much that they can form naturally in the astrophysical universe," he writes in the book. But Thorne appreciates that Christopher and Jonah Nolan, who wrote Interstellar, were so keen to tell a story that is grounded in science.

“The story is now essentially all Chris and Jonah's,” Thorne told Wired in an exclusive interview. “But the spirit of it, the goal of having a movie in which science is embedded in the fabric from the beginning—and it's great science—that was preserved.”

Back to Brontosaurus? The Dinosaur Might Deserve Its Own Genus After All

Smithsonian Magazine

It may be one of the most famous dinosaurs of all time. The trouble is that shortly after being discovered, the Jurassic creature fell into an identity crisis. The name for the long-necked, heavy-bodied herbivore Brontosaurus excelsus—the great “thunder lizard”—was tossed into the scientific wastebasket when it was discovered that the dinosaur wasn't different enough from other specimens to deserve its own distinct genus.

But now, in a paleontological twist, Brontosaurus just might be back. A new analysis of dinosaur skeletons across multiple related species suggests that the original thunder lizard is actually unique enough to resurrect the beloved moniker, according to researchers in the U.K. and Portugal.

“We didn’t expect this at all at the beginning,” says study co-author Emmanuel Tschopp of the Universidade Nova de Lisboa. At first, Tschopp had been working only with Octávio Mateus of the Museu da Lourinhã to update the family tree of diplodocid dinosaurs.

But when it started looking like Brontosaurus might be real after all, they asked Roger Benson at the University of Oxford to join their team and run a statistical analysis on their findings. “Roger’s calculations gave the same results,” Tschopp says. “Brontosaurus should be valid.”

The name Brontosaurus excelsus was coined by Yale paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh, who described the species in an 1879 paper with the mundane title “Notice of New Jurassic Reptiles.” His description is based on an enormous partial skeleton exhumed from the 150-million-year-old rock of Como Bluff, Wyoming. This “monster” of a dinosaur added to Marsh’s rapidly growing fossil collection, which already included similar species. Just two years earlier, Marsh had named Apatosaurus ajax—the “deceptive lizard”—from a partial skeleton found in the Jurassic rock of Colorado.

Brontosaurus quickly gained fame because it was among the first dinosaurs the public encountered. An illustration of its skeleton “was the first dinosaur restoration to get a wide circulation,” points out North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences historian Paul Brinkman. This “helped spread the popularity of Brontosaurus in an era before dinosaurs proliferated widely in natural history museums.” And once museums started to put up skeletons of Brontosaurus—the first was assembled in New York City in 1905—the dinosaur’s popularity only grew.

An old-school drawing of Brontosaurus excelsus graces a 1900s trading card from a French chocolate manufacturer. (Public domain, via AlphaGalileo)

But as anyone who has strolled through an up-to-date museum hall knows, the name Brontosaurus was eventually abandoned. In 1903, paleontologist Elmer Riggs found that most of the traits that seemed to distinguish Marsh's two specimens had to do with differences in growth, and it was more likely that the skeletons belonged to the same genus. Since it was named first, Apatosaurus had priority over Brontosaurus. Despite the extreme similarity between Marsh’s skeletons, Riggs recognized that they differed just enough to be regarded as different species. Therefore Apatosaurus ajax would remain in place, and Brontosaurus was changed to Apatosaurus excelsus. It took a while for museums to follow suit, but by the 1970s everyone finally got on board with the shift.

Bringing Brontosaurus back from scientific obsolescence would be the equivalent of restoring Pluto to the status of planet. And much like the drawn-out debate over the extraterrestrial body, the status of Brontosaurus relies on definitions and the philosophy of how scientists go about making divisions in a messy natural world.

To navigate the ever-growing number of dinosaur species, paleontologists look to a discipline called cladistics. In short, scientists pore over dinosaur skeletons to score a set of subtle characteristics, such as the way a flange of bone is oriented. Computer programs sort through those traits to create a family tree based upon who shares which characteristics. However, different researchers might pick different characteristics and score them in different ways, so any single result is a hypothesis that requires verification from other researchers independently generating the same results.

Here’s where Brontosaurus stomps in. Tschopp and colleagues had set out to create a revised family tree of diplodocid dinosaurs—huge sauropods found from the western United States to Portugal—with a special emphasis on sorting out how many species of Diplodocus and Apatosaurus there were. The researchers scored 477 anatomical landmarks across 81 individual dinosaurs. While the general shape of the tree supported what other paleontologists had previously proposed, there was a surprise in store: The bones Marsh originally called Brontosaurus seem to stand apart from the two Apatosaurus species, the team reports today in PeerJ.

An infographic traces the history of Brontosaurus and Apatosaurus. (StudioAM, CC BY 4.0)

Most of the differences the researchers identified were subtle anatomical features, but there are some broader traits, Tschopp says. “The most obvious and visual feature would be that Apatosaurus has a wider neck than Brontosaurus,” he says, adding that despite the title “thunder lizard,” Brontosaurus was not quite as robust as Apatosaurus.

These results came from two Brontosaurus skeletons: the one Marsh used to coin the name, and a second that could confidently be referred to as the same species. There are more possible Brontosaurus bones out there, and Tschopp studied many of them in preparation for the current study. But because the skeletons were incomplete, the bones popped up in various positions on the family tree. Now, with the new diplodocid tree in hand, Tschopp says he plans to take a second look at these bones to see whether they truly group with Brontosaurus or something else.  

What remains unclear is whether Brontosaurus is here to stay. Southern Methodist University paleontologist Louis Jacobs praises the new study. “Numerous new sauropods have been discovered and named in the last couple of decades, new techniques have been developed, and we simply have a more sophisticated understanding of sauropods now,” he says. The potential resurrection comes out of this burgeoning understanding. In short, Jacobs says, “good for them, and bully for Brontosaurus!”

John Whitlock of Mount Aloysius College is more reserved. “For me the issue is how you want to define genera and species in dinosaur paleontology,” Whitlock says. Some researchers will look at this study and conclude that Brontosaurus should still be an Apatosaurus because of their close relationship, forming what paleontologists call a monophyletic group, while others will emphasize the diversity. There’s no standard rule for how such decisions should be made. “I think we are going to start seeing discussion about not only how much change is enough to split a monophyletic group but, more importantly, how do we compare characters and character states?” Whitlock says. “That's going to be a fun debate to be a part of, and I'm excited about it.”

The fate of Brontosaurus now relies upon whether other paleontologists will be able to replicate the results, as well as what those researchers think about the threshold for when dinosaurs merit different names.

Other dinosaurs are held in the same taxonomic tension. While some researchers recognize the slender tyrannosaur Gorgosaurus libratus as a unique genus, for example, others see it as a species of Albertosaurus. But the battle for Brontosaurus stands apart. The name has become a totem of the extinct creatures that continue to ignite our imaginations with scenes of Jurassic titans ambling over fern-carpeted floodplains. We’ve kept the name Brontosaurus alive because the hefty herbivore is an emissary to a past we can never visit, but that we can still connect to through the dinosaur’s magnificent bones. Protocol will ultimately dictate the dinosaur’s title, but in spirit if not in science, those old bones will always be Brontosaurus.


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Want to Know How to Make Great Pizza? Consult the Guy Who Wrote the Bible on It

Smithsonian Magazine

It's safe to say that few people know pizza like Tony Gemignani, or at the very least understands pizza the way he does. The 40-year-old has been making pizza for the last 22 years and is now the owner of seven pizza restaurants, including three in San Francisco, where he resides. He holds numerous pizza-related accolades, such as 'Best of the Best World Champion/Master Pizza Maker' at the 2012 Pizza Expo in Las Vegas, and 'World Champion Pizza Maker' at the 2007 World Pizza Cup in Naples, Italy—the first American and non-Neapolitan to ever hold this title. Gemignani is also a pizza acrobat, honored twice by the Guinness Book of World Records, once for creating the largest pizza and a second time for performing the most consecutive rolls of pizza dough across the back of his shoulders. If all this weren't enough, the city of Naples named Gemignani the official U.S. Ambassador of Neapolitan Pizza, one of the most prestigious titles in the pizza industry. But if you're still not convinced that Gemignani is a living and breathing pizza encyclopedia, this much-heralded pizza maker’s latest book, The Pizza Bible, should do the trick.

As well as being a comprehensive cookbook, The Pizza Bible is a guide to pizza's regional and global styles and a course in pizza theory. It also features plenty of history and reveals many little-known facts, such as:

  • That Chicago-style deep dish pizza was invented at the original Pizzeria Uno in 1943…
  • That Rome has its own style of pizza known as pizza in pala, a rectangular pizza that's sliced and then sold by weight in bakeries and specialty food shops…
  • That pepperoni isn't from Italy at all, but is actually an Italo-American invention dating back to the 1930s.

Gemignani peppers his chapters with such facts and stories, giving readers lots to mull over as well as to make.

Talking with Gemignani is even more of an education, as he offers his thoughts on everything from pizza toppings (“I love using Peppadew, a type of sweet pepper,” he says) to why you should always demand that a pizzeria reheat your slice before serving (“It's that 20-30 seconds in the oven that gets the slice to fold and crack, but not break—they kind of slice that NY pizzerias are famous for.”). The key to a great pizza, says Gemignani, is balance: “Some guys just throw fontina cheese onto ciabatta bread and call it a pizza. Complexity should be there, but if I'm using a great cheese and went through the trouble of removing the seeds from tomatoes for an ideal sauce, I don't want a dough with too sour of a starter. That will just overpower the other flavors.”

Image by Sara Remington. Detroit Red Top (original image)

Image by Sara Remington. Cast-Iron Skillet (original image)

Image by Sara Remington. Fully stuffed (original image)

Image by Sara Remington. Lucca (original image)

Image by Sara Remington. Campari (original image)

Image by Sara Remington. Margherita (original image)

Image by Sara Remington. Organic Three Cheese (original image)

The ingredients you choose are just as important, says Gemignani. “The best cheese in the industry is Grande mozzarella, a Wisconsin cheese that's used by 99.9 percent of New York pizzerias,” he says. “It's the Ferrari of cheeses.” Then there's the dough. “Typically a lot of pizzerias make their dough on the same day they serve it, and that's not good,” says Gemignani. “You want to let the added yeast feed longer on the dough—say 36 hours—to help with digestibility.” It also allows the starter, an ingredient that Gemignani recommends using for increased flavor, a chance to work its magic.

When it comes to producing a great crust, Gemignani stresses that you should not underestimate water. Cities like New York and Chicago have it made when it comes to quality water, but places like San Diego and Jacksonville, not so much. “If you don't drink your tap water, why would you use it to make your dough?,” says Gemignani. “If it comes out of the faucet tasting bad and looking cloudy, why would you do that?” As Gemignani points out, water is pizza dough's second largest ingredient behind flour, and it's what affects how the dough handles, stretches, and holds together. Gemignani employs a reverse osmosis system at his restaurantsfor consistency’s sake (literally), though he says that for home pizza makers, bottled water is an easy substitute.

Gemignani understands that everyone may not have the time or even desire to start their pizzas from scratch (However, The Pizza Bible does provide step-by-step instructions). In this case he offers an ingenious suggestion: stop into your local pizzeria -- (“Make sure it's a mom & pop place and not a chain,” he says) -- and ask if you can purchase a couple of nine-to-fifteen-ounce balls of dough. “But first you want to be sure you have an oven you can cook it in,” he says. “Wood-fire doughs cook very hot (800-900 degrees) and so the doughs used in wood-fire ovens are not meant for cooking at home. [So make sure the mom and pop joint you go to doesn’t use a wood stove.] Doughs that cook at 500-600 degrees should work.”

Gemignani also mentions Trader Joe's pizza dough as an option, citing that he's heard both pros and cons about it. “On the plus side,” he says, “it's easy to use and it's tacky,” meaning it won't stick all over your hands when you work it. 

As a longtime resident of Northern California, Gemignani also has thoughts on another important question: why does the average pizza taste so well, different out west, compared to New York and New Jersey styles?

 “On the East Coast you have third generation Italians running the corner pizzeria their grandfather started,” he says, “but a lot of the guys making pizza out here during the '80s and '90s just didn't grow up with it. They got into it for the money, but there was no real research. They may not have been using the correct flour or the right cheese. Some of them weren't even using the proper oven.” Gemignani contends that things out west are definitely changing, “though some guys still don't know what goes into a good pizza.”

All they'd have to do is pick up a copy of The Pizza Bible, where Gemignani not only provides a list of suggested ingredients but also offers recipes for every type of pizza imaginable. There's the Detroit Red Top, a thick, rectangular pizza with both cheddar and brick cheeses that cook until they're golden brown; and the Honey Pie, a California-style white pie that serves as a showcase for its toppings, which include beer-battered caramelized onions and a generous drizzle of honey. There's a section on regional Italian pizzas and another completely devoted to Neopolitan, the gold standard of pizza in Italy, including recipes for authentic dough, sauce, and cheese. Gemignani even includes recipes for calzones and pepperoli, focaccia bread, and—a surprise addition—Chicago-inspired cocktails that Gemignani says are ideal for enjoying while your deep-dish pizza cooks.

All images reprinted with permission from The Pizza Bible by Tony Gemignani, copyright (c) 2014. Photography (c) 2014 by Sara Remington.

Rick Bayless Preaches the Gospel of Modern Mexican Cuisine

Smithsonian Magazine

Hold on to your tortas! In a big night for the culinary world, Mexican food impresario Rick Bayless will be awarded the second annual Julia Child Award at the National Museum of American History’s Food History Gala on October 27, an evening that kicks off the Smithsonian’s jam-packed annual Food History Weekend.

Bayless, whose innovative Chicago restaurants blazed the trail toward wider acceptance of south-of-the-border cooking, has much in common with the celebrated Julia. He too is a prolific cookbook author and host of an acclaimed public television show, and he too has a mission to educate. In the same way that she spread the word about French cooking, he preaches the gospel of Mexican food, in all its diverse glory.

Bayless will be feted at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., by Scott Simon of National Public Radio, noted food journalist Kim Severson of the New York Times, and Spanish chef-star José Andrés.

Not only has Bayless created a mouth-watering menu of shrimp-scallop ceviche and carne asada for the gala dinner, but he’s also donating archival materials from his career—including a typewriter used in his early fieldwork in Mexico—to the museum’s collection, which features Julia’s much-loved kitchen.

Long before Bayless opened his award-winning Topolobampo in 1991 or transformed the reputation of airport dining forever when he started serving delicious Mexican sandwiches at Tortas Frontera at O’Hare International Airport, he was a food-obsessed kid growing up in Oklahoma.

“I come from the fourth generation of a family of food people,” recalls Bayless. “My great-grandparents had the first grocery store in the state of Oklahoma, and I grew up in a barbecue restaurant. I loved being in the prep kitchen all by myself, imagining what I would do with this or that ingredient. When I was maybe 6 or 7, I would hang out in the walk-in. People would laugh and say: ‘Oh, Rick’s doing his experiments again.’ ”


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But in spite of the fact that his childhood playroom was an industrial-size walk-in refrigerator, it was the vision of Julia on television that played a pivotal role in his life. “The first thing I ever made was from a Julia recipe: I made Napoleons when I was 11. I made the puff pastry. I made the pastry cream. I made it all from scratch. I used to sit in front of the TV with a notebook—I can still see the brand name on the cover, “Big Red” —and I filled it with notes from her show.”

And that wasn’t the only Julia-related dish that looms large in Bayless’ gastronomic memory chest.

“Every summer, I would cook a big, exotic meal for my family from a spiral-bound cookbook given to me by a neighbor. My family was all about real traditional cooking—they never wanted to sit through my meals. Crisp tender green beans were, to them, undercooked!”

Then, around the same time as his foray into the universe of puff pastry, Bayless saw the televised Julia making lamb chops. “I found out where there were lamb chops in our town—at a fancy grocery store in a really swanky part of town. They had delivery service. So I ordered lamb chops to be delivered. When my mother found out, she said: ‘You did what?’ It turns out that my father, who had been in World War II, had had to eat a lot of mutton, and he really hated lamb.”

It took a few more years for Bayless to home in on Mexican food and on cooking as a career. He started out as anthropologist and must be one of the best-educated chefs around. His undergraduate degree was in Spanish language and literatures and Latin American culture, and his graduate work focused on linguistics within the department of anthropology at the University of Michigan. Yet eventually he found his way back to the stove.

“I didn’t really fall in love with Mexican food in particular until I was in graduate school. I went to Mexico for the first time when I was 14, and after that, I went back once a year, on school trips. I was always very interested in the relationship between language and culture.”

But even while he was following his intellectual passions and pursuing his Ph.D., Bayless admits, laughing: “I was super-interested in pastry.”

Eric W. Spivey, chairman of The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts, thinks that Bayless is the perfect next recipient of the Julia Child Award. “Bayless has championed educating Americans about eating authentic Mexican food, just as Julia did with authentic French food,” he notes. “We created this award to identify one individual each year who carries on the culinary torch that Julia so proudly bore.”

An independent jury of gastro-luminaries decides annually who that torch-bearer will be, and the recipient receives a $50,000 grant. Bayless’ prize will go to his nonprofit Frontera Farmer Foundation, which supports small, sustainable farms in the Midwest. This year’s jury included chefs Jim Dodge (a good friend of Julia’s), Jasper White and Nancy Silverton; food scholar Darra Goldstein; and food writer Russ Parsons.

Rick Bayless, whose innovative Chicago restaurants blazed the trail toward wider acceptance of south-of-the-border cooking, has much in common with the celebrated Julia Child. (Galdones Photography)

Rick Bayless’ desire to introduce people to new things to eat has been a constant in his life—from the lamb chops and Napoleons he brought to his Oklahoma family dinner table to the way he continues to pushes the envelope in how diners and cooks see Mexican food. Now that the world has learned to take Mexican cuisine seriously, he wants people to see it in a new light, to realize that it might include ingredients they’d never associated with the Mexican larder.

“In my new restaurant, Leña Brava, the food is from the Baja area of Mexico. And there, 10 percent of the population is from either Japan or China. So they cook with ginger, soy, Szechuan peppercorns,” he says. “When you find that kind of culture, they’re expressing their own geography or history. Mexican cooks in Mexico City right now are cooking with all kinds of influences, all kinds of things. They don’t say: ‘This is weird.’ They say: ‘This is a really cool thing.’ ”

Rick Bayless signs copies of his cookbook More Mexican Everyday at 1 p.m. at the National Museum of American History on Thursday, October 27. The Smithsonian Food History Weekend: Politics on Your Plate, October 27 to October 29, features non-partisan conversations about food, agriculture, people and power at a round table discussion and cooking demos, garden tours, hands-on activities and an After-Hours beer tasting.

Would You Trust Drone Software to Pilot Your Flight?

Smithsonian Magazine

Would you get on a plane that didn’t have a human pilot in the cockpit? Half of air travelers surveyed in 2017 said they would not, even if the ticket was cheaper. Modern pilots do such a good job that almost any air accident is big news, such as the Southwest engine disintegration on April 17.

But stories of pilot drunkenness, rants, fights and distraction, however rare, are reminders that pilots are only human. Not every plane can be flown by a disaster-averting pilot, like Southwest Capt. Tammie Jo Shults or Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. But software could change that, equipping every plane with an extremely experienced guidance system that is always learning more.

In fact, on many flights, autopilot systems already control the plane for basically all of the flight. And software handles the most harrowing landings – when there is no visibility and the pilot can’t see anything to even know where he or she is. But human pilots are still on hand as backups.

A new generation of software pilots, developed for self-flying vehicles, or drones, will soon have logged more flying hours than all humans have – ever. By combining their enormous amounts of flight data and experience, drone-control software applications are poised to quickly become the world’s most experienced pilots.


Drones come in many forms, from tiny quad-rotor copter toys to missile-firing winged planes, or even 7-ton aircraft that can stay aloft for 34 hours at a stretch.

When drones were first introduced, they were flown remotely by human operators. However, this merely substitutes a pilot on the ground for one aloft. And it requires significant communications bandwidth between the drone and control center, to carry real-time video from the drone and to transmit the operator’s commands.

Many newer drones no longer need pilots; some drones for hobbyists and photographers can now fly themselves along human-defined routes, leaving the human free to sightsee – or control the camera to get the best view.

University researchers, businesses and military agencies are now testing larger and more capable drones that will operate autonomously. Swarms of drones can fly without needing tens or hundreds of humans to control them. And they can perform coordinated maneuvers that human controllers could never handle.

Whether flying in swarms or alone, the software that controls these drones is rapidly gaining flight experience.


Experience is the main qualification for pilots. Even a person who wants to fly a small plane for personal and noncommercial use needs 40 hours of flying instruction before getting a private pilot’s license. Commercial airline pilots must have at least 1,000 hours before even serving as a co-pilot.

On-the-ground training and in-flight experience prepare pilots for unusual and emergency scenarios, ideally to help save lives in situations like the “Miracle on the Hudson.” But many pilots are less experienced than “Sully” Sullenberger, who saved his planeload of people with quick and creative thinking. With software, though, every plane can have on board a pilot with as much experience – if not more. A popular software pilot system, in use in many aircraft at once, could gain more flight time each day than a single human might accumulate in a year.

As someone who studies technology policy as well as the use of artificial intelligence for drones, cars, robots and other uses, I don’t lightly suggest handing over the controls for those additional tasks. But giving software pilots more control would maximize computers’ advantages over humans in training, testing and reliability.


Unlike people, computers will follow sets of instructions in software the same way every time. That lets developers create instructions, test reactions and refine aircraft responses. Testing could make it far less likely, for example, that a computer would mistake the planet Venus for an oncoming jet and throw the plane into a steep dive to avoid it.

The most significant advantage is scale: Rather than teaching thousands of individual pilots new skills, updating thousands of aircraft would require only downloading updated software.

US Airways Flight 1549 passengers evacuate in the water after an emergency landing. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

These systems would also need to be thoroughly tested – in both real-life situations and in simulations – to handle a wide range of aviation situations and to withstand cyberattacks. But once they’re working well, software pilots are not susceptible to distraction, disorientation, fatigue or other human impairments that can create problems or cause errors even in common situations.


Already, aircraft regulators are concerned that human pilots are forgetting how to fly on their own and may have trouble taking over from an autopilot in an emergency.

In the “Miracle on the Hudson” event, for example, a key factor in what happened was how long it took for the human pilots to figure out what had happened – that the plane had flown through a flock of birds, which had damaged both engines – and how to respond. Rather than the approximately one minute it took the humans, a computer could have assessed the situation in seconds, potentially saving enough time that the plane could have landed on a runway instead of a river.

At the NTSB hearing, investigators learned how the decision time made it impossible for Flight 1549 to return to the airport, forcing the water landing. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Aircraft damage can pose another particularly difficult challenge for human pilots: It can change what effects the controls have on its flight. In cases where damage renders a plane uncontrollable, the result is often tragedy. A sufficiently advanced automated system could make minute changes to the aircraft’s steering and use its sensors to quickly evaluate the effects of those movements – essentially learning how to fly all over again with a damaged plane.


The biggest barrier to fully automated flight is psychological, not technical. Many people may not want to trust their lives to computer systems. But they might come around when reassured that the software pilot has tens, hundreds or thousands more hours of flight experience than any human pilot.

Other autonomous technologies, too, are progressing despite public concerns. Regulators and lawmakers are allowing self-driving cars on the roads in many states. But more than half of Americans don’t want to ride in one, largely because they don’t trust the technology. And only 17 percent of travelers around the world are willing to board a plane without a pilot. However, as more people experience self-driving cars on the road and have drones deliver them packages, it is likely that software pilots will gain in acceptance.

(Pew Research Center)

The airline industry will certainly be pushing people to trust the new systems: Automating pilots could save tens of billions of dollars a year. And the current pilot shortage means software pilots may be the key to having any airline service to smaller destinations.

Both Boeing and Airbus have made significant investments in automated flight technology, which would remove or reduce the need for human pilots. Boeing has actually bought a drone manufacturer and is looking to add software pilot capabilities to the next generation of its passenger aircraft. (Other tests have tried to retrofit existing aircraft with robotic pilots.)

One way to help regular passengers become comfortable with software pilots – while also helping to both train and test the systems – could be to introduce them as co-pilots working alongside human pilots. Planes would be operated by software from gate to gate, with the pilots instructed to touch the controls only if the system fails. Eventually pilots could be removed from the aircraft altogether, just like they eventually were from the driverless trains that we routinely ride in airports around the world.

Seeking the Humanity of Al Capone

Smithsonian Magazine

Al Capone is much more myth than man in the popular imagination. While the notorious gangster of 1920s Prohibition-era Chicago still lingers in our cultural consciousness, this image is one riddled with contradictions: of a mobster and a do-gooder; a man who sprayed silver bullets into the air from his car and helped feed the city’s poor as he orchestrated some of the most cold-blooded murders in Chicago’s history. Although he was only leader of the infamous “Chicago Outfit” for only six years, Al Capone has remained permanently enshrined as one of America’s most notorious criminals and still commands our attention almost a century later.

National Book Award-winning biographer Deidre Bair attempts to unravel this complex mythology of Capone in her latest work, Al Capone: His Life, Legacy, and Legend. “This is the story of a ruthless killer, a scofflaw, a keeper of brothels and bordellos, a tax cheat and perpetrator of frauds, a convicted felon, and a mindless, blubbering invalid,” Bair writes. Her biography draws on a rich—and, until recently, untapped—pool of resources: Capone’s remaining living relatives. Using interviews with Capone’s surviving family members, Bair attempts to humanize Capone, mapping out his close and important family bonds to his mother, wife, and son and exploring his later life, during which he developed severe mental impairments—a part of the narrative often excluded from his mythology. 


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Bair interviewed relatives and second- and third-generation Capone family members to try and build a picture that challenged the criminal Capone of popular imagination. But not every family member was willing to talk—many family members had changed their surnames and moved away from Chicago in the generations since the gangster’s death. Some spoke with Bair on the condition of anonymity, and as such, no names are given with some of the quotes Bair sourced. Many of the grandchildren of some of Capone’s former cronies were unwilling to speak with Bair, having promised their parents and grandparents to never discuss “business” outside the family. But the stories she extracts from the distant relatives who did talk help demystify many of the highly fabled stories around Capone—especially those that concern his sexual exploits, his kindness and charitableness, and the importance he placed on his family life.

Alphonse “Al” Capone was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1899, the son of Italian immigrants. After being kicked out of school in the sixth grade, he joined one of the borough’s tough teen gangs. At age 15, Capone began working for Johnny Torrio, one of the city’s most notorious Italian-American gang leaders, helping him in his many mob outfits including brothels and bars. Unlike Capone’s six brothers and two sisters, Al embraced the cultural myth of the American Dream, seeing himself wholly as an American. When anyone called him an “Italian,” writes Bair, he would say, “I’m no Italian—I was born in Brooklyn.” 

Bair writes that Capone was propelled to the “illegitimate” life out of necessity. His father died when Capone was 21 and he was the child tasked with providing for the family. Capone was fiercely devoted to his mother, writes Bair, calling her on a daily basis while he began a career as a mobster. It was this commitment to his family—especially this love for his mother—that prompted Capone to create a divide between “work” and home life in an effort to protect the welfare of his family and shield them from his growing criminal exploits. Capone adopted this approach from his mobster mentor Johnny Torrio, who believed work and family should never mix, telling Capone to “keep your hands clean” and use others do your “dirty work.” According to Bair, the surviving members of Capone’s family believe that, were it not for his father's death, Capone might have become the respectable businessman he always aspired to be. “The mantle of criminal greatness was thrust upon his unwilling shoulders,” Bair writes.

After his marriage to wife Mae in 1918 and the birth of his only son, Sonny, Capone still remained a notorious womanizer. Bair is able to detail much of this thanks to relatives’ stories about his sexual deeds. This kind of philandering gave Capone syphilis, which he then passed on to his wife. Bair writes Capone did not seek treatment in spite of enduring painful sores, rashes, and regular flu-like symptoms because in doing so, he would then need to tell his wife about his adultery: To admit to having an STD was admitting to adultery itself. Later in life, untreated syphilis proved to be Capone’s undoing, completely deteriorating his mental faculties.

After Torrio gave Capone the reins of the organized crime syndicate, the Chicago Outfit, in 1929, Capone conquered the city through a sophisticated network of brothels and speakeasies. By 1929, he had accumulated a net worth of over $40 million—approximately $550 million today—and associations with over 700 murders. Capone also controlled the sale of liquor to over 10,000 speakeasies. “I make money by suppling a public demand,” Capone told a reporter at the time. “If I break the law, my customers…of the best people in Chicago are as guilty as me.” To help maintain his reign, Capone often paid off top city officials, rigged local elections, and sometimes even kidnapped workers and henchmen from rival outfits.

Image by Courtesy of Nan A. Talese. The true flesh-and-blood man behind the legend has long remained a mystery. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Nan A. Talese. Al Capone's final resting place (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Nan A. Talese. Al Capone's open casket (original image)

But in her book, Bair offers a new history of Capone, and separates fact from fiction in the process. For example, she tackles one story claiming Capone kept a 15-year-old female mistress in an apartment during his early years in New York, a tale Bair points out was impossible since Capone could not have afforded to do so, despite numerous biographies that purport it as truth.

Bair also upholds certain enduring legends, like Capone’s supposed wish that he had started in the milk business before the beer business, since milk was always in demand and far easier to trade in than alcohol in Prohibition Chicago. Further, Bair explores the legend that has it Capone was the one responsible for putting expiration dates on milk bottles in Chicago, which it turns out has some kernels of truth. Along with his brother, Capone did indeed open own dairy farm and manufactured milk that was sold in bottles with expiration dates. The rumor says that Capone pushed for expiration dates because one of his relatives got sick from drinking milk, but Bair, based on conversations with Capone's descendants, believes it was a first step toward becoming a more legitimate businessman.

While the infamous St. Valentine’s Massacre of 1929 is part of Capone’s common image—an event whereby he orchestrated the murder of seven rival gang members—Bair argues that it’s his family that defines him. His descendants report that his unwavering and enduring devotion to both mother and wife demonstrate his true persona, an identity they believe has now been completely eclipsed by his gangland legacy. They share that he loved to fish, would joyously sing at family functions, and had an intense passion for writing music.

Later in life, Capone’s 11-year prison sentence—ironically handed down for tax evasion rather than for any of the many murders he coordinated—saw him mentally unravel, a result of his untreated syphillis. Capone left prison with the mind of a childish twelve-year-old in 1939. Bair shares stories of Capone being cared by wife Mae and his brothers after his imprisonment, spending his days at home in pajamas and having imaginary conversations with long-dead colleagues or enemies in their back yard, delusions the entire family went often along with. At age 48, Capone died on January 25, 1947 of a stroke.

Bair's Capone is powerfully human, a daunting task given his infamous pop culture stature and her biography reminds us that even though Capone was one of the most notorious mobsters in America’s history, he spent more time in prison than actually running illegal bootlegging operations in Prohibition Chicago, ending his life a “blubbering, babbling” mess.

“Was he a mobster? Yes. Was he a monster? No,” one relative tells Bair. Since Capone is such a wealth of contradictions, Bair believes “the only certainty is that as time passes and the man who was Al Capone recedes into history, the legend shows no sign of stopping.” 

Tactical Urbanists Are Improving Cities, One Rogue Fix at a Time

Smithsonian Magazine

One rainy January night in Raleigh, North Carolina, Matt Tomasulo went out to commit what some would call vandalism. Along with his girlfriend and a friend, the graduate student walked around downtown hanging homemade signs on lampposts and telephone poles. The signs featured arrows pointing the way to popular downtown destinations, along with average walking times. Tomasulo called the project “guerrilla wayfinding.” His decidedly un-criminal intent was to promote more walking among Raleigh citizens.

Frustrated by the syrup-slow pace and red tape of the traditional civic change process, citizens across the country are bypassing the bureaucratic machine entirely and undertaking quick, low-cost city improvements without government sanction. They’re creating pop-up parks in abandoned lots. They’re installing free library boxes on street corners. They’re creating homemade traffic-slowing devices using temporary obstacles like potted plants to make their streets safer. 

New York-based urban planner Mike Lydon coined the term “tactical urbanism” several years ago to describe the phenomenon. Now, Lydon and fellow planner Anthony Garcia have come out with a new book, Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action for Long-term Change, offering a history of the movement and a guide for aspiring practitioners.

“There are so many new types of public demands, and cities have a hard time responding in a way that’s nimble,” Lydon, 33, says. “I see a lot of people who are just frustrated with the decades of accumulated policies.”

The DIY civic-mindedness of tactical urbanism is generally aimed at making cities friendlier, more community-oriented and more walkable. In San Francisco, activists turned parking spots into “parklets” complete with AstroTurf and café tables, making a car-centric landscape more pedestrian friendly. In Memphis, advocates for downtown revitalization transformed a long-abandoned historic brewery into a temporary beer garden. In Baltimore, a concerned citizen painted a crosswalk on a busy street when the city failed to do so. And a band of volunteers in Toronto have placed more than 400 brightly colored ramps in front of business entrances to make them wheelchair accessible.  

Image by © Beau Lark/Corbis. Guerrilla gardeners beautify city streets. (original image)

Image by © Roberto E. Rosales/ZUMA Press/Corbis. Citizens are installing free library boxes on street corners. (original image)

Image by © Ted Soqui/Corbis. Grass and benches take over a parking spot on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles on Park(ing) Day a few years ago. (original image)

Image by © INTS KALNINS/Reuters/Corbis. On Park(ing) Day, people transform a metered parking space into an area for practicing yoga. (original image)

Image by StopGap. A band of volunteers in Toronto have placed more than 400 brightly colored ramps in front of business entrances to make them wheelchair accessible. (original image)

Image by © Ramin Talaie/Corbis. New York’s temporary installation of 376 lawn chairs in Times Square in 2009 was an example of government-driven tactical urbanism. (original image)

Image by Flickr user Mike Freeman. In Memphis, advocates for downtown revitalization transformed a long-abandoned historic brewery into a temporary beer garden. (original image)

The rise of tactical urbanism is due to a convergence of several factors, Lydon says. Over the past five to seven years, more and more young people—especially the relatively affluent and educated—have moved to cities. The number of college-educated adults between 25 and 34 living within three miles of a city center has grown 37 percent since 2000. These young urbanites want real “city living,” with walkability and vibrant street life. At the same time, the Great Recession has meant cities have had even less money for civic improvements. From 2010 to 2012, just as tactical urbanism was heating up, 25 percent of American cities reported cuts to services like parks and recreation, libraries and public works, while nearly half laid off municipal workers. Frustrated, citizens began to take matters into their own hands. This kind of consumer-driven innovation resonates particularly with Millennials.

“We’re so used to having the new version of the phone and the app and the software program, we kind of expect versioning in life, including in the city,” Lydon says.

Thanks to the internet, a successful tactical urbanism project can be quickly replicated in other cities. In Portland, an initiative to beautify neighborhood intersections with murals and community bulletin boards has inspired similar projects across the United States and Canada. San Francisco’s parklets have gone global with an “open source” how-to manual available online. Now, so-called “PARK(ing) Day” is held each September in hundreds of cities on six continents, with artists and ordinary citizens transforming parking spots into mini parks.

In the best cases, tactical urbanism’s homemade fixes lead to long-term solutions. Tomasulo’s guerrilla wayfinding signs eventually encouraged the city of Raleigh to adopt a new pedestrian plan, one which used signs like his. In Memphis, the beer garden was such a hit it attracted a developer who plans to turn the old brewery into mixed-use commercial and residential space. And Baltimore officials caught wind of the rogue pedestrian path and added two stop signs and three official crosswalks.


Tactical Urbanism: Short-term Action for Long-term Change

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Tactical urbanism is not anti-government, Lydon says. It can in fact be a powerful tool for municipalities. Instead of creating huge, costly 20-year master plans for civic improvements, cities can try a piece-by-piece “see what works” approach, incorporating public feedback. New York’s temporary installation of 376 lawn chairs in Times Square in 2009 was an example of government-driven tactical urbanism. The project was so successful the city decided to make a permanent pedestrian zone with seating between Broadway and 7th Avenue and 42nd and 47th Streets.

As the world continues to urbanize—according to United Nations projections, 66 percent of all people will live in cities by 2050—cities will need to respond more rapidly and fluidly to evolving needs.

“As cities change, their approaches can change,” Lydon says. “Tactical urbanism isn’t a silver bullet for everything, but it’s a great tool.”

Lydon and Garcia urge aspiring tactical urbanists to think small. “Opportunities to apply tactical urbanism are everywhere,” they write. A vacant lot, a decrepit warehouse, a too-wide street: these are all potential project sites.

But don’t go hauling off with a can of paint and a roll of reflective tape without some planning, the two advise. Tactical urbanism is above all about community. Ask yourself if your project targets a true community need. Involve other people. Consult local government, if feasible. Make a budget.

“[W]e can’t guarantee that your $2,000 project will catalyze $2 million of municipal or private investment,” Lydon and Garcia write. “…but we can promise that these things will never happen unless someone takes action.”

It's Like Uber, But for Farmers' Markets

Smithsonian Magazine

Community-supported agriculture is great. But, at times, you can be bombarded with chard, or wonder what the heck to do with garlic scapes.

What if you could have a weekly box of locally grown produce, only you get to choose exactly what is in it. That’s the idea behind Farmigo, a startup with a service that allows a consumer to “ditch the supermarket,” as its website says, and instead purchase fresh foods from area farms online and pick them up at a neighborhood location.

Farmigo’s founder Benzi Ronen, who has spent 20 years in the technology world, decided it was time to use technology to remove a lot of the middlemen in grocery shopping, so that there could be a fair payback to farmers and the food could still be affordable to consumers.

Ronen shares his story with

What problem are you trying to fix?

There is a consumer side, and there is a supply side. On the consumer side, we are just not getting access to the best, healthiest produce possible that is fresh, directly from harvest and grown sustainably. On the supply side, we are not giving the majority of the funds to the actual growers of our food. Just as an example, distributors and retailers give the farmer 20 to 30 percent of what the consumers spend, and that doesn’t enable the farmers who are doing the best job and growing sustainably to become highly profitable enterprises and expand their work.

What is Farmigo, exactly?

Farmigo is an online farmer’s market. Our mission is to create a better food system, that’s better for the eaters and better for the farmers. The way we do this is we connect the farms directly with the consumers. That enables us to pass on 60 percent of what the consumer pays directly to the grower or the maker of the food, and it allows the consumers to get their food direct from harvest, so that it is fresher than anything they can get at the supermarket. They have full accountability of where their food is coming from.

So unlike a traditional CSA, consumers have control over what they get?

That’s right. They have no commitment each week, and, very much like a farmer’s market, they can pick and choose exactly how much they want and what they want.

Founder Benzi Ronen packs individual orders in one of Farmigo's warehouses. (Farmigo)

How did you come up with the idea?

When we started in 2009, we were a software company, building software for farms and CSAs to be able to sell direct. We still do that to date and have about 400 farms that are using that software. But we saw two things happening. The farms were coming to us and saying, “I need help with the logistics. I’m really good at growing, but I’m not as good at coordinating the logistics or marketing and sales to find the customer. I need more access to customers.”  We did a lot of market research, and there was also a huge segment of the population who said, “I aspire to buy my food at the farmers' market each week instead of going to the supermarket, but I simply can’t get there because of the time windows or the location of it.”

We saw that as an opportunity to build a service that would give this kind of food to a much broader segment of the population, and do it in a way that was much friendlier to the farm.

What is the experience like for the consumer?

The consumer picks a pickup location that is in their neighborhood, or they can create a new one. Then, they select online from the different items that are in the market. They can see, for each item, exactly which farm it is coming from and the story behind that farm. They place their order, that order than goes directly to the farms and the food makers, so that they can harvest it in an on-demand, just-in-time system. The farmer then delivers what was pre-ordered to our local warehouses, so that we can pack each individual order, which might contain things coming from 50 different farms and food producers. Farmigo gets these orders delivered to the respective pickup locations in each neighborhood.

This is where you rely on volunteer organizers, right?

Exactly. In order to pass savings to the consumer and give them a price point that is about 10 percent less than, say, Whole Foods, and pass on 60 percent to the farm, and ensure that Farmigo can be a profitable business entity, we have these volunteers that we call “organizers” in each neighborhood. They create a convenient pickup location for people in their area, and then they also do the outreach to find people who share the same values that Farmigo has around this kind of food and where it comes from.

Schools can be pickup locations. When you are coming to pick up your kids, your order is there and you can take it home, so you are not going out of your way. Ten percent of the sales become a fundraiser for the school, towards their nutrition program or their school garden.

Synagogues and churches are great pickup locations. Apartment buildings are pickup locations. People are even doing them out of their homes. I ran one out of my apartment and invited all of my neighbors to place orders and come pick them up there. Everybody got great food, and there was an unintended consequence—I got to know my neighbors. I now have this much more personal relationship with the people who live in my building.

You modeled this volunteer system off of political campaigns.

We looked for a model that was highly decentralized as opposed to our food system, which is highly centralized. Right now, you have these huge warehouses that Whole Foods and Walmart use to transport food 2,500 miles, and that’s why, on average, it sits in box or on a shelf for 10 days before you get to eat it. We wanted a system that was local to the farmer and local to the consumers of the food.

We looked to be inspired by where that kind of a model was being applied, and we saw that it was very similar to how political organizations do their outreach. If you look at the Obama campaign, they were able to get volunteers at the local level who really knew the neighborhoods and the neighbors and had real person-to-person contacts as opposed to trying to do these very big, expensive advertisements.

We don’t believe that as a company we can do this ourselves. We rely on the consumers and volunteers in the community to help us build this new food system by creating these pickup locations, which become the last mile to the customer.

You’ve said that this is all part of the “unbundling of the supermarket.” What do you mean by this?

The trend to date has been bigger is better. The more items you can have under one roof the better. Call it the one-stop shop. It forced supermarkets to try to become great at everything, because that is the convenience that the consumer wanted. What’s happening now as a result of technology and cell phones is that your one-stop shop becomes your telephone, where you can place your orders.

Supermarkets are in this unfair position where they just can’t be the best at everything. They end up not delivering on any of the expectations that you have because you can find a better alternative for each of those categories. You get your non-perishables through Amazon, and that’s probably the cheapest way to get what you need. So the supermarkets are now missing out on the non-perishables, which used to be their highest profit margins in the store. Then the supermarkets are just not optimized to deal with fresh produce, because they are not getting it direct from the farms. Now you have companies like Farmigo—that’s all we specialize in, the fresh stuff.

Our focus is the once a week large shopping that you do to fill up the fridge and the kitchen with your fresh items. There is still a need to do your stopgap purchases during the week when you run out of something. Farmigo is not the best at that. There you might have a local bodega, or you might have a service, like Instacart, that you are willing to pay some extra money for to get those things delivered to you within a couple hours.

How would you describe your success so far?

We are in all five boroughs of New York City, and we’re pushing out in all directions in New York. Then we are in New Jersey. We are in northern California, and we recently launched in the Seattle region.

What we are trying to do is pretty ambitious. We are collapsing the existing food system, taking out all the middlemen and establishing a direct relationship between the eater and the grower. In one sense, that is nothing new. It is the way we used to get our food when we were surrounded by farms. But it is new in the sense that we are trying to do that in a very different landscape, with the urban and suburban areas. We’re trying to give you the variety you want for your fresh goods without having to go to the supermarket, and we’re trying to do it at scale, so that it is something that we can do across the entire country.

We measure our success by the number of organizers, these volunteers, that we have basically building these communities. They are an indicator of the demand. You can also look at them as virtual retailers or virtual food cooperatives. Today we have about 400. We’d like to see that grow to many, many thousands across the United States.

You don’t consider yourself a foodie.

Yeah, I’m not a fan of the term, because it sounds too elitist. I am a father of two, and all the parents I know are very focused on feeding their kids better food. When you become a parent, the responsibility is not just for yourself, but also for the next generation. I think that’s what Farmigo is doing. It is helping families better feed their kids. 

The Founding Fathers and the Women, Not Their Wives, Whom They Wrote To

Smithsonian Magazine

When the term “platonic friendship” comes to mind, we’re likely to think of the movie When Harry Met Sally or the latest pop psychology article examining whether these relationships are possible. But the founding fathers? Our nation’s first presidents had close, loving friendships with women—women who weren’t their wives or close relatives. These friendships show us a softer side of the founding fathers.

While today we use the term “platonic” to describe nonsexual friendships between men and women, in the late-18th and early-19th centuries, there was no special term for or even much recognition of, these relationships. The word “platonic” connoted an unrealized ideal and usually referred to romantic love not-yet consummated. Historians can, however, distinguish a friendship from a romance in the past through careful attention to the language men and women used. Of the many thousands of letters of the founders which have survived, small caches of correspondence with female friends survive. Their correspondence shows that the founding presidents were warm, loving and often lighthearted with their female friends.

Americans in this period were prolific letterwriters, writing lengthy missives to friends and family from whom they might be separate for years at a time. Trips up and down the Eastern seaboard would take weeks. A trip across the Atlantic to London or Paris, months. But friends of the opposite sex faced special challenges when writing one another, because unrelated men and women were not supposed to correspond. When they did write one another, they had to worry that their expressions of affection would be misinterpreted—especially since letters were often passed around as public documents. Think about it as if your whole family and a few of your neighbors had access to your email password.

As Benjamin Franklin told a female friend, “I know very well that the most innocent Expressions of warm Friendship, and even those of meer Civility and Complaisance, between Persons of different Sexes, are liable to be misinterpreted by suspicious Minds.” Given that, men and women were careful about the wording of their letters, particularly the openings and closings. While John Adams opened letters to Abigail with “My dearest friend” and signed off with lines like “yours most tenderly,” his letters to his friend Mercy Otis Warren look quite different. Most opened with “Madam” and closed more formally: “With the greatest Esteem and Respect, Madam, / I have the Honour to be, your Fr[i]e[n]d, & sert.”

The founding father who left the largest body of correspondence with female friends was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson particularly enjoyed having female friends and had a unique ability to connect with women. His wife died in 1782, and soon after he moved to France. There, he befriended Alexander Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler Church. Church was not in Paris long and Jefferson regretted that they were not able to be in the same place. In a 1788 letter, he told her “I never blame heaven so much as for having clogged the etherial spirit of friendship with a body which ties it to time & place. I am with you always in spirit: be you with me sometimes.”

While in France, Jefferson also first met Abigail Adams, in 1784. Abigail and Jefferson bonded as parents missing their children, lovers of art and culture and as sharp intellectuals. They went to plays, concerts and exhibitions together, and Jefferson spent much of his time at the Adams’ home.

By the time Abigail moved from Paris to London with John for his new appointment as American ambassador to Britain, she reported to her sister that Jefferson was “one of the choice ones of the earth.” He, in turn, jokingly referred to her as Venus; he wrote from Paris that while selecting Roman busts to send for the Adams’ London home, he passed over the figure of Venus because he “thought it out of taste to have two at table at the same time.”

Abigail’s husband John Adams, Jefferson’s eventual political rival during the Election of 1800, is known today for his loving letters to his wife, but he also corresponded eloquently with female friends. He and Abigail were both close with Mercy Otis Warren, a well-educated Massachussetts writer. John respected Mercy’s intelligence and insight on political affairs. He told her of a Bishop writing to a female friend that “I never attempt to write to you but my Pen conscious of its Inferiority falls out of my Hand.” Adams then remarked that “The polite Prelate did not write to that excellent Lady in so bold a figure with half the sincerity, that I could apply it to myself when writing to Mrs. Warren.” He closed the letter expressing “more Esteem than I have Power in words to expend.”

Adams’s predecessor, George Washington, likewise had talented female friends to whom he wrote in a more playful, loving style than we might expect from a leader often depicted as stiff and stoic. While in Philadelphia during the 1780s, he befriended two women from a circle of female intellectuals there, Annis Boudinot Stockton and Elizabeth Powel. Stockton was a New Jersey widow living near Trenton and held dinners for Revolutionary War officers in the early 1780s. She began writing and publishing poems in tribute to Washington before she met him, and in 1783 she wrote to apologize for doing so. He replied playfully, saying:

“You apply to me, my dear Madam, for absolution as tho' I was your Father Confessor; and as tho' you had committed a crime…You are the most offending Soul "alive" -(that is, if it is a crime to write elegant Poetry) yet if you will come & dine with me on Thursday, and go thro' the proper course of penitence which shall be prescribed, I will strive hard to assist you in expiating these poetical trespasses on this side of purgatory.”

This may sound stilted to modern ears, but essentially he’s offering her dinner with him as punishment for her poetic crimes. In the language of the late 18th-century, this is light-hearted jesting—especially for Washington.

Washington’s closest female friend, however, was Elizabeth Powel. Powel lived in a large home in the heart of the city, and Washington frequently spent time at her home while in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The poem he sent her for her 50th birthday in 1793 (written by another writer friend of Stockton and Powel) praised her (as Mira, the name of the brightest star in the constellation Cetus, the Whale):

Like Mira, Virtue’s Self possess.

Let her adorn your Mind

For Virtue in a pleasing Dress

Has Charms for all Mankind.

Washington remained friends with Powel for the rest of his life, even signing one letter to her a year before his death “I am always Yours.”

The affection and lightheartedness in these letters, however, coexists with serious discussions of politics. As John Adams told his friend Mercy Otis Warren in 1776, “the Ladies I think are the greatest Politicians.”   Thomas Jefferson, while often wary of women’s involvement in politics, trusted Abigail Adams to convey political news and often discussed current events with her. It was in response to her disparaging comments on Shays’ Rebellion, the 1786-7 armed uprising of Massachusetts farmers angry about taxation and other matters, that Jefferson famously wrote “I like a little rebellion now and then.” Men like Jefferson, Adams and Washington valued the political opinions of their female friends and sometimes even turned to these women for political access and influence.

Thomas Jefferson suggested to his friend Angelica Schuyler Church that if their friendship had been painted, it would be “something out of the common line.” What friendships between Jefferson and other founders and women show is indeed “something out of the common line”—it is a new story line for the founding era. It is impossible to continue to imagine a founding fraternity once we are aware of the many friendships with women that this generation of men had. The highest of the political elite were not the only ones to have such friendships, either. In fact, these friendships were fairly common among middling to upper class Americans at the time. All of these relationships, whether with political figures or not, offered a space for men and women to model the best virtues of the young nation, in particular modeling equality across the sexes. As such, we should not talk about founding brothers or founding fathers, but a founding generation made up of both men and women.

The Fight for Catalonian Independence Took the Form of a Giant "V" in the Streets of Barcelona

Smithsonian Magazine

At 1:14 pm, local time on September 11, Catalonia's National Day, 550,000 people reportedly filled miles of Barcelona's streets to form an enormous “V” in the red and yellow colors of the Catalan flag. (UPDATE, September 12: Reports from after the event gave estimates ranging from the expected 500,000 up to potentially 1.8 million protestors.) Dubbed the Via Catalana, the “V” stretched from the contemporary and iconic Torre Agbar building at the Plaça de Glòries along 6.8 miles of two major throughfares in the heart of the city. Traffic was snarled and slow because of the street closures, but 1,500 buses and more than 100,000 cars transported protestors to the surrounding areas.

The “V” stands for via, the path toward independence, but it also stands for vote as the Catalans insist on their right to hold a referendum on November 9. This vote poses two questions to Catalans: Do you want Catalonia to be a state? If so, do you want Catalonia to be an independent state? “The demonstration represents the will to vote, the decision of the Catalans to resolve our political future through a peaceful and democratic path,” says Muriel Casals, the president of Omnium Cultural and one of the organizers of the movement for Catalan sovereignty. Many Catalans feel disenfranchised because the central government in Madrid has ignored their concerns since democracy was restored in 1978. The Spanish government maintains that Catalans have no legal right to pose the question of independence. And the region's taxes paid to the state are also an issue.

The protest required a massive organizational effort. Registering online, each participant selected one of 68 different sections of the “V,” and each was directed to wear a red or yellow T-shirt. Then 36 key volunteers at the front of each section positioned themselves to establish yellow and red stripes. Other volunteers followed suit until the streets resembled the Catalan flag, known as the senyera. The organizers provided a 10-page booklet that detailed the schedule, transportation issues, communication strategies and heath care tips. It also included a chart to explain how each section of the V should be organized to create the image of the flag. This attention to detail and planning is evidence of what Catalans call seny, a particular kind of good sense. 

The timing of this demonstration is particularly dramatic for Catalans. September 11 commemorates the defeat of the Catalans in 1714. The War of Spanish Succession pitted the royal houses of Hapsburg and Bourbon against each other, and the principality of Catalonia sided with the Hapsburgs in the hopes of maintaining autonomy. After the 14-month Siege of Barcelona, the city fell to the Bourbon king, Felipe V of Spain. Angry at the betrayal of the Catalans, Felipe promptly destroyed 1,200 houses in Barcelona to build a new fortress, and then in 1716 annexed Catalonia, abolishing its laws, special rights and separate institutions. The protestors underscored the 300 anniversary of this loss by forming the “V” at exactly 1:14 p.m., or 17:14 in a 24-hour format.  “We were a nation conquered by its neighbor 300 years ago, and because we decided to celebrate the day of that loss, the day in which we were told we no longer existed, we never forgot the fact that we exist, and we are Catalan,” says historian Meritxel Martin-Pardo.

Preparation began weeks ago and recalls many of the specific events of the Siege. Last night, political leaders and parliamentarians joined the honor guard of the Catalonia’s regional police force to lay a wreath at the Fossar de les Moreres, a memorial plaza dedicated to the memory of the heroes who died defending Catalonia. This morning at 8:00 a.m.—the exact hour when Barcelona’s Chief Minister Rafael Casanova was wounded and the city fell—300 cellists played in concert, performing a specially commission tribute to those who died in the Siege by composer Albert Guinovart entitled “We were. We are. We will be.” Government officials and civic leaders then laid a wreath at the foot of a statue of Casanova. (Yesterday, players from the Barcelona Football Club, captain Xavi Hernández and goalkeeper Jordi Masip laid wreaths as well.) At noon, wreaths were laid at the docks where General Josep Moragues i Mas fled to the nearby island of Majorca to continue the struggle against Felipe. When the new king captured Moragues, he was tortured and executed; his head was placed in an iron cage, and hung in the streets of Barcelona for 12 years, a grim and frightening warning to anyone who might resist the new regime.

“Catalonia is a nation with a thousand years of history, a checkered history but one that moves toward the desire for self-government,” said Joan Argenter, director of the Institute for Catalan Studies in Barcelona. Many claim that Catalan has the oldest democratic tradition in “modern” Europe, referring to the formation of a legislature called the Corts de Barcelona in 1283, and the Catalans have tried to separate from Spain several times in modern history. In 1641, a Catalan lawyer named Pau Claris i Casademunt with the support of France declared a Catalan Republic. And again in 1873, another Catalan Republic was declared as part of a larger federalist movement by activist Baldomer Lostau i Prats.  In the chaotic years preceding the Spanish Civil War, another attempt was made when a former Catalan officer in the Spanish Army Frascesc Macia i Llussa proclaimed the Free Catalan Republic, but then had to settle for autonomy within the Spanish state. Still another attempt was made in 1934, but when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, Catalonia sided with the Republicans against Franco and the Fascists. And when Franco triumphed in 1939, he too took vengeance on Catalonia, abolishing the use of Catalan in schools and public events.



Victus: The Fall of Barcelona, a Novel

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The repeated suppression of Catalan language has made its use a hallmark of the independence movement. This began in the 1860s when Catalonia industrialized, and its wealthy business owners began to reformulate the populist movement known as Catalanismo as a strong sense of local identity, politic qal autonomy, and modernization within the larger Spanish state. “Without language and history, it is difficult to explain our sense of difference, because it is the sum of what we call culture that sustains these differences until today,” says Martin i Pardo.

Anthropologist Pablo Giori from the University of Girona has tracked how the Catalan nationalist movement has used cultural traditions to reinforce a shared sense of identity and to build a political consensus. Long traditions of group hikes, choral performances, pilgrimages to the shrine of the black virgin of Montserrat, and performances of the folk dance called the sardana have all characterized the movement at different moments. These cultural activities have allowed Catalan nationalists to nurture strong social relationships, experience their sense of identity, and express their aspirations, even when the political process had stalled. Recently, the tradition of building of human towers has become indicative of both a sense of Catalan identity and a desire for a democratic political solution that will allow Catalans to determine their future as a people and as a society. (In fact, 54 teams built human towers along the Via Catalana this afternoon.)

“We don’t insist on being Catalan. It is a simple fact, a reality; we are different. Neither better, nor worse, but different,” explains Casals. “The writer Joan Sales said, ‘A Catalan is Catalan and not Spanish in the same way that an apricot is an apricot and not a peach’.”

Why this 14th-Century Chinese Artist Is Having a Rebirth

Smithsonian Magazine

In June 2011, a hanging scroll sold for $62.1 million at Poly auction house’s spring sale of ancient calligraphy and painting in Beijing, setting both a new world record for Chinese artwork at auction and the record for a painting by the 14th-century artist, Wang Meng.

The ink wash, Zhichuan Resettlement, ca. 1350, was attributed to Wang Meng, a Chinese literati who lived from 1308 to 1385 and is still revered as one of the renowned “four masters of the Yuan dynasty” (1271 -1368). The painting depicts a famous Taoist medical scientist of the East Jin dynasty (317 – 420 AD) moving his entire household on horseback across rocky terrain to the sacred Mt. Luofu to make elixirs and practice alchemy. (To this day the mountain is a forested park dotted with Taoist temples and tributes to the fourth-century scientist.) The painting, which also boasts seven poems by scholars, painters and poets, had been handed down for six centuries.

An arguably more significant work by the same artist can be seen in “Style in Chinese Landscape Painting: the Yuan Legacy,” a show currently on view at the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art.

Dwelling in Seclusion in the Summer Mountains, 1354, is confidently attributed to Wang Meng. It is a relatively small piece, in ink and color on silk, remounted as a hanging scroll. Beautifully painted with several distinct kinds of brushwork, it depicts a peasant walking on a tiny pedestrian bridge over the inlet of a lake, returning home from work. Hidden from his view are his wife and child, anxiously waiting on the deck of a modest house. Not far from the peasant, a scholar stands under a thatch roof in a lakeside pavilion.

“The fellow in the pavilion is the personification of either the artist or the patron, the recipient of the painting,” explains Stephen D. Allee, a curator of Chinese painting and calligraphy at the Freer, who organized the current exhibition. “He is the subject of the title of the painting.”

The tiny buildings and figures are in the lower third of the painting; they are dwarfed by majestic, steep forested slopes in the middle ground and a range of tall misshapen, even grotesque, mountains that recede in the mist in the distance.

Landscape painting is one of the most prized traditions in Chinese culture and dates to the third century. The current exhibition focuses on the Yuan dynasty because several new key styles emerged at that time, a turbulent era when the Mongols came to power in China, the first time foreigners had occupied the country. (The conqueror was the brutal Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan.)

The innovative artist Wang Meng spent years studying the affects of certain material, inks and brushes. (Freer Gallery of Art)

The great painters of the time, members of the literati class, resisted serving under the Yuan court and defiantly removed themselves to work and reside in the countryside. They exclusively painted landscapes, which they believed to be the visible key to the invisible reality, Allee says. “No longer viewed as a simple representation of the external world,” he adds, “landscape became a form of self-expression full of personal connotations for both artist and viewer.”

These artists were creating art for themselves and each other, instead of the court. “They restricted their acquaintanceships to other gentlemen scholars,” Allee explains. Wang Meng was the youngest of the “four masters” and least famous in his day, but he greatly influenced the painters of later generations—and not just painters. He has even inspired fiction. Last year John Spurling, the English writer, employed Wang Meng as the central character in his novel, The Ten Thousand Things.”


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And his life story is fascinating. The grandson of another famous painter, Zhao Mengfu, who had Song royal blood, Wang Meng “identified with Chinese culture, not the cosmopolitan Mongols,” Allee says. “This was a matter of choice at a certain level and a matter of identity.”

He was from an “artistic family of great prominence” that had produced generations of painters—and collectors. As Allee explains, “Not only was painting a family tradition, but he had old paintings that were available to study and copy. Art was part of the family ambiance. They had great status in the artistic world.”

But how did he actually learn to paint? “Clearly there was some kind of instruction going on in the house, though we don’t have clear descriptions of how it was done, just that there was a high level of exposure to art in the family.”

Wang Meng was in his 40s when he did this painting. He had spent years learning about “what effects you can get from certain material, particularly the ink, as it spreads or holds fast on the surface,” Allee says. “And he had different brushes at his disposal, with hairs of goat, deer, rabbit and sable. Some had a harder core of hair of one kind and softer hair on the exterior. Old brushes were used to create a streaking effect.”

Wang Meng used brushwork to differentiate kinds of trees: weeping willow, pine and various deciduous trees. (Freer Gallery of Art)

Surviving works by Wang Meng are incredibly rare. Dwelling in Seclusion in the Summer Mountains is his earliest dated piece, which makes it even more significant. It is also a showcase of the artist’s technical skills. “He is showing off what he can do,” Allee says. “Chinese artwork is always about the art of painting as much as anything else.”

It is a dense picture, full of nervous energy. The vertical composition is a rugged landscape dominated by craggy mountain crests that recede into the misty distance. They are formed by a technique Allee calls “hemp-fiber brushstrokes," because the long, overlapping lines resemble strands of rope. Flecks of dark ink represent boulders on the ridges. He used brushwork to differentiate kinds of trees: weeping willow, pine and various deciduous trees.

“There are five different kinds of trees, each distinct in terms of leaves and roots,” Allee points out. “Wang Meng is making things more complex, more varied, putting more definition into it.” There is a lot going on.

It is worth noting that the human element—the buildings and figures—are completely dwarfed by nature. They are quietly integrated into the bottom third of the landscape and do not immediately attract the viewer’s attention.

“It’s all about identification with landscape and the simple life of the peasant as seen from the vantage point of the artist,” Allee says. “It’s part of Daoism and the yearning for nature.”

The piece is also Wang Meng’s conscious tribute to the style of the 10th-century artists Dong Yuan and Juran. “They were neglected after the Song dynasty, so Wang Meng is “rediscovering their style and reinvesting them with significance,” Allee says.

It is common for Chinese artists to look back to past generations for inspiration. Similarly, Wang Meng was not particularly admired during his own time but was rediscovered later on. “He greatly influenced later painters, but not immediately,” Allee says.

Wang Meng lived long enough to see the Ming dynasty come to power and ultimately become a victim of that reign. It is not known precisely why, but he was imprisoned for five years and died in prison. His legacy lives in incredible paintings like Dwelling that are being discovered yet again.

“Pioneered by the 10th-century artists Dong Yuan and Juran, this once-neglected style had been revived in the Yuan dynasty by Wang’s older contemporaries,” Allee writes in the exhibition notes. “The visual profusion of the composition became a hallmark of Wang’s approach and strongly influenced later generations.”

The Freer Gallery possesses one of the most important collections of Chinese painting outside Asia, with many of its works from the Song and Yuan dynasties holding near-iconic status. Many of these works are available in the Song and Yuan Dynasty Painting Collection. The exhibition, "Style in Chinese Landscape Painting: The Yuan Legacy," is on view through May 31, 2015.

These Photographs From Space Show What Humans Have Done to the Earth

Smithsonian Magazine

More than 550 people have shucked the bonds of Earth and visited space. They unanimously describe the experience as profound. But it isn’t the empty blackness between stars or the power of the harnessed explosion they ride that so affects these space travelers. It’s the feeling they get when they look back at Earth.

“When we look down at the Earth from space, we see this amazing, indescribably beautiful planet,” says astronaut Ron Garan. “It looks like a living, breathing organism. But it also, at the same time, looks extremely fragile.”

Neil Armstrong did call his first step on the moon’s surface a giant leap, but when he looked at Earth he says, “I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

This moving experience is called “the overview effect.” Space travelers have struggled to explain exactly what it is about seeing the planet as a pale blue dot that evokes this feeling. Yet artists, filmmakers and other Earth-bound creatives have been inspired by what the astronauts can share. Author Benjamin Grant, who just released a book, Overview: A New Perspective of Earth, that draws on the rich photographic resources collected by satellites, is the latest person striving to convey the feeling.

“When I learned about the overview effect, it completely changed the way I thought about the world,” Grant says.

Grant got his own taste of the overview effect after he typed the query “Earth” into Google Earth. Instead of zooming out and showing him the globe, he says the program zoomed in to Earth, Texas. Green circles, irrigated fields that pop out from the brown landscape, surround the small community in the western part of the state. “I was amazed and astounded and had no idea what I was seeing,” says Grant. “From there I became completely obsessed with finding patterns in the Earth.”

Grant’s curiosity led him to search for other striking ways that humans have altered the landscape of the planet. From the orderly grid of city streets to the patchwork quilts of agricultural areas, from the vivid hues of mining waste ponds to the sinuous curves of highway interchanges, Grant kept finding intriguing marks of civilization etched on the surface of Earth. In December 2013, he started to collect the images and explain what they were in a blog he calls “Daily Overview.”


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The new book is a collection of more than 200 photographs Grant found over three years. As curator, he edited and stitched together raw images taken by satellite company DigitalGlobe. He then organized his creations into eight chapters that explore how humans are shaping the Earth. “Where We Harvest,” for example, looks at how we cultivate the land and sea to feed ourselves. In “Where We Play,” Grant shows us parks, beaches and resorts.

These images from above all have the same curious flatness one can see from a plane window. Removal from the immediate and overwhelming complexity of life on the ground encourages a sort of clarity of perspective. Life below can seem small and even quaint. But there’s also a contradiction that becomes clear from this vantage point. Some of these structures and built landscapes are enormous. Knowledge of that fact belies the neat, orderly illusion that distance gives.

The book’s photographs are saturated with color. The large pages give plenty of space for the images to take center stage, while short but informative captions lurk unobtrusively to the side. Even with the ubiquity of satellite-based images available online, this is a unique view of the globe we all call home.

Grant spoke to about the book and its message.

Can you convey the overview effect in a book, or does one need to travel to space?

I think what the images do is provide a little of that effect for all of us stuck here on the ground. They provide a new vantage point and new way to think about our species and what we are doing to the planet.

I'm trying to get people to feel awe when they look at the images. When you are looking at something that is so vast and so grand and bigger than anything you've seen before,

your brain is forced to develop new frameworks. You have to reset, in a way, to comprehend what you are seeing. You have to look for pieces of the photograph that give you a sense of scale. You have to kind of mentally go up into the camera in the satellite and back down to Earth to understand what you see.

I don't know if the project fully gets across what astronauts saw, but I was fortunate to get to speak to astronauts as I was working on it. They said that it did remind them of looking back down at Earth.

At this point, we have a lot of satellite images available to us. How is your collection unique?

I take this satellite imagery that we have access to from Google Earth and other programs and started treating it more like art, or like photographs. I take the time to compose them and enhance certain colors to get across what I want to convey in that image.

For me, the artistic composition is a way to pull people in and to make them curious. If I have done a good job of pulling people in, I get them to say more than, "That is pretty," but "Wow, what is that?"

Why do you focus on human-influenced landscapes?

I made the decision on the first day to focus on human landscapes we have created. I'm not necessarily saying these landscapes are good or bad or that we are destroying the planet. But I am creating an accurate picture of where we are now.

Before people make decisions on what to do about the planet, they need to understand what we have done. Hopefully then, we can understand how to create a better and smarter planet.

But, I think when I made that decision, I didn't know all the different ways that it would manifest.

Are there particular images that were surprising to you?

The chapter on mining, "Where we extract," is pretty remarkable to me. It started with the research to figure out what these mines were and how the materials we are extracting from the Earth are used in our home and what we eat…in everything. To see where these materials are coming from makes you more informed. You realize how much needs to happen in different places around the world to get the aluminum in your car or the coal that we burn.

At the same time, the images are profoundly beautiful. That creates an interesting tension: You know this can't be good for the planet, that chemicals are being released into the environment, and at the same time you really enjoy looking at it. Mining often creates these textures, patterns and colors that can't exist anywhere else.

There are other images too where it is pleasing to look at, but you know it can't be good. I have a beautiful image of the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya. There's the stunning red of the soil and then an intriguing pattern on top of it. But then you realize that this is an expansion for a refugee camp that already has 400,000 Somali refugees, and they are planning for more.

In a weird way, this is one of the best things about the project. It shows people things they may not want to look at or read about and encourages them to do exactly that.

Why did you decide to do a chapter on "Where we are not?”

I couldn't help but be interested in creating this juxtaposition. Not only is the book showing the planet and what we are doing to it, but I also wanted to encourage people to develop an appreciation for the natural beauty of the Earth itself.

Astronauts talk about the patterns in clouds and water, where you don't see man-made lines or constructions. They develop this incredible appreciation for this oasis that is floating in darkness. The final chapter touches on that, this pure natural beauty that has nothing to do with us.

There is also this sense of time. Mountains that rose up because of tectonic activity or rivers that meander—these are things that could only have been created over lengths of time that are almost unfathomable. The previous chapters focus mostly on things that have been created very recently, in the past century. So the book is about not only what we are doing to the planet, but how quickly we are doing it.

What do you hope readers will take away from the book?

Before people start acting in service of the planet, I think they need to have a better idea of what is going on. These images are a fascinating, relatively new way to look at our planet. Hopefully, the book encourages people to start asking questions. I think that inquisitiveness will lead to better behavior.

This planet will be here long after we are gone. We should develop an appreciation and love for it, because it's the only planet we have, for now.

To Save Endangered Species, Should We Bring Them Into Our Cities?

Smithsonian Magazine

The red-crowned parrot is native to eastern Mexico, but if you want to see one in the wild, your best bet is to head to Pasadena, California.

Some estimates count fewer than 2,000 red-crowned parrots in their native habitat, while escapees from the pet trade have settled farther north, where much larger populations are thriving in an unexploited ecological niche. This feral colony might be the only thing preventing the colorful birds from going extinct.

Though the red-crowned parrot was accidentally introduced to the Los Angeles ecosystem, one scientist proposes facilitating such migrations of non-native endangered species on purpose, giving threatened animals a second chance in our own cities.

The head and neck of a red-crowned parrot, also known as red-crowned Amazon (Amazona viridigenalis). (Wikimedia Commons/CC 3.0)

Brad Shaffer, a conservation biologist at UCLA, says that artificial habitats in cities could provide a perfect opportunity to save critically endangered species. It's virtually guaranteed that something will eventually arrive to claim those habitats, he argues, so why not give them over to the creatures we want to save?

"There are a lot of parrots out there in the world, and some parrot is going to show up,” Shaffer says. “So, wouldn't we rather have a larger fraction of those non-natives be [a species that is] seriously endangered in its home turf? Then at least we're accomplishing something."

Messing With Nature

Introducing non-native species to cities could provide "assurance colonies" of endangered creatures, Shaffer says. If introduced parrots—or reptiles or insects—thrive in their new homes, the world would be less likely to lose valuable biodiversity, and the selected species could also crowd out less desirable invasives. (“Introduced” or “non-native” species don’t naturally occur in a habitat, but they don’t do much harm, while “invasive” species outcompete or eat the local wildlife.)

Still, the idea of bringing non-native animals to new habitats on purpose has many ecologists howling.

"Despite our wisdom and intelligence, it's very difficult to predict which species are going to become invasive," says Adam Smith, an ecologist at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

In 2013, Smith proposed a plan to "chaperone" plant species from their native habitats into botanical gardens to preserve them—similar to how zoos transfer endangered animals from place to place to better manage a species. Gardens would be equipped to protect the fragile seedlings and monitor them to prevent invasive spreading. But Smith has stopped pushing the idea, he says, after becoming concerned that monitoring wouldn’t be enough to prevent invasive species from escaping the gardens.

A gold dust day gecko (Phelsuma laticauda) in Kauai, Hawaii. The species is native to northern Madagascar and the island of Comoros, though it has been introduced to many Pacific islands. (Wikimedia Commons/CC 4.0)

Shaffer, on the other hand, insists that properly vetted non-natives can be managed within cities. "Non-native species in urban environments ... [tend to] rely on people. They rely on us watering lawns, they rely on fruit trees. ... They need us, they need our artificial environments." Accordingly, he says, the chances of non-native creatures escaping into the wild and wreaking havoc on natural ecosystems is low.

Shaffer’s proposal also calls for non-native species to be introduced if and only if there are no native species to occupy a particular ecological niche. Hawaii, for example, has no native geckoes. All eight species arrived with Polynesian settlers over a millennia ago, and they mostly stick to urbanized areas. It wouldn't be unreasonable, Shaffer says, to consider moving in a ninth gecko—one threatened in its native range that could thrive in Hawaii.

"Something's going to get out [to an unoccupied habitat] eventually," says Ursula Heise, a collaborator of Shaffer's who teaches in both UCLA's English department and its Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. "Wouldn't you rather have something that you chose than something that gets out by sheer luck?"

The "Urban Ark"

More than 25,000 plants and animals worldwide are considered endangered or vulnerable, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. And that number, in general, is trending upward. Habitat destruction, hunting and fishing, climate change and pollution are just some of the threats facing the world's biodiversity.

Cities, some scientists say, present the perfect opportunity to save at least some of these critically endangered animals. Heise recently produced a short documentary about the red-crowned parrot that makes the case for Los Angeles as an "urban ark” to save not just that species, but many more.

"Cities are a valuable place to experiment, and they do offer a more controlled environment" to house species, says Jessica Hellmann, director of the Institute of the Environment at the University of Minnesota. "We have greater tolerances for how much artificialness we allow in our urban landscapes."

We freely plant palm trees in Los Angeles, stock fish in city lakes, and cover acres of front lawns with Poa pratensis (better known as Kentucky blue-grass, which is actually native to Europe and Asia). In a survey of plants in urban Los Angeles, only 5 percent of the species were considered native, says Diane Pataki, a biologist who studies urban vegetation at the University of Utah.

To go back to a "native" ecosystem, the city would have to stop irrigating parks and medians. "There's a big price to pay for that,” Pataki says. “There wouldn't be any trees and it would be hotter, and in the late summer, everything would be brown." People say they want to preserve native species, but the lack of trees and dead lawns "are consequences that most people don't want."

So we already design our urban ecosystems—at least in the case of flora. Why not pick and choose fauna as well? Think Burmese roofed turtles, possibly extinct in the wild and down to a few hundred captive individuals, basking in urban reservoirs, or endangered Karner blue butterflies flitting in urban parks and gardens.

Humans don’t seem to worry as much about introducing plants as they do animals—although plants can be just as destructive. On the other hand, Pataki says, plants don't generally eat other species.

Rewilding the City

Moving species from one place to another is not an entirely new idea. Scientists have been discussing proposals for "managed relocation" or "rewilding" for years. The former involves moving a species to a new habitat as its old habitat deteriorates due to climate change; the latter is about restoring extirpated species to restored habitats. (Rewilding can involve anything from replanting native flowers near a cleaned-up river to restoring extinct camels to North America, last seen on this continent 12,000 years ago.)

In 2016, the critically endangered western swamp tortoise made history when scientists moved 12 captive-bred juveniles to two national parks 225 miles south and 80 miles north of its habitat outside of Perth, Australia. It was the first vertebrate deliberately moved because of climate change (shifting rainfall patterns caused its habitats to dry up).

A Karner blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis). (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

Other species may soon follow the swamp tortoise. Hellmann says that her biggest critique of the strategy is "the inadequacy of the approach.”

“It's hard to imagine we could just pick up everything and move it around and think it was anything other than a small Band-Aid," she says.

Managed relocation, while not without its detractors, is not as drastic as what Shaffer proposes. The swamp tortoise would have eventually moved to follow the rain if urban sprawl hadn't prevented it, and humans just helped it along a path it probably would have taken on its own—but there's no way the Burmese roofed turtle would walk from Myanmar to Los Angeles.

Risk and Reward

Human history is rife with examples of introductions gone wrong.

Two hundred million European starlings terrorize North America, and they trace their lineage back to a single flock released in Central Park in 1890 by a well-meaning bird lover who thought America should have every species of bird mentioned in Shakespeare. In the Everglades, escaped Burmese pythons from the pet trade thrive and wreak havoc on south Florida's native birds and mammals.

The Tree of Heaven—also known by the decisively less poetic name "stinktree"—was brought to the U.S. from China more than 200 years ago as an ornamental, and now it’s taking over 42 states. The powerfully odorous tree doesn't just outcompete other trees, but it also produces a toxin in its leaves that inhibits the growth of other plants. More recently, the stinktree began providing new habitats and food sources for the spotted lanternfly, a crop-devouring invader that the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture said "could be the most destructive species in 150 years."

An American alligator and a Burmese python locked in a mortal struggle in Everglades National Park. (Lori Oberhofer/National Park Service)

And then there are the diseases. Chestnut trees imported from Japan and China brought with them chestnut blight, which drove the American chestnut tree to extinction.

"In a lot of cases, you don't know what [an introduced species] is carrying," says Jamie Reaser, the executive director of the National Invasive Species Council, a body for coordinating federal work on invasive species. "Do we even have an understanding of ... what the implications could be for every other organism that could come into contact with the [Burmese roofed] turtle, the water the turtle lives in, the soil the turtle lives in?"

Shaffer admits there would be risks to introducing new species to cities. But in his view, the tradeoffs are worth it.

"We've got to do better if we plan for [invasive species] and if we use our science than if we don't,” he says. “It won't be perfect, and there will be some [introductions] that go wrong, but we have to do better than just sitting back and waiting."

Underlying the questions of which species to move, and where to move them, is a question of what we consider “nature” in the first place—or in other words, what are we trying to conserve? In the U.S., we tend to think of nature as the untamed wilderness that European settlers discovered upon their arrival, but we now know that that landscape was heavily managed by Native people. Would it not be more “natural” to allow species to move around as they will, joining us in urban environments (or failing to do so) without the hand of humans guiding the outcome?

Shaffer rejects that notion, as does Pataki. "We have a moral and ethical obligation that comes with our unique awareness of how we impact other species," she says. Ecosystems, rather than being simply preserved, may have to be managed.

After all, cities are our habitats, and if we could introduce endangered species without unintended consequences—which is a big if—it could be a boon not just to nature, but to us.

“Cities are for people,” Pataki says. “It’s okay to design a landscape that … doesn’t clean the atmosphere or have some physical impact, but still makes people happy.”

If we've made peace with the idea of planting trees and flowers, is it wrong to do the same with birds and butterflies?

Melting Glaciers Are Wreaking Havoc on Earth's Crust

Smithsonian Magazine

You've no doubt by now been inundated with the threat of global sea level rise. At the current estimated rate of one-tenth of an inch each year, sea level rise could cause large swaths of cities like New York, Galveston and Norfolk to disappear underwater in the next 20 years. But a new study out in the Journal of Geophysical Research shows that in places like Juneau, Alaska, the opposite is happening: sea levels are dropping about half an inch every year.

How could this be? The answer lies in a phenomenon of melting glaciers and seesawing weight across the earth called “glacial isostatic adjustment.” You may not know it, but the Last Ice Age is still quietly transforming the Earth’s surface and affecting everything from the length of our days to the topography of our countries.

During the glacier heyday 19,000 years ago, known as the Last Glacial Maximum, the Earth groaned under the weight of heavy ice sheets thousands of feet thick, with names that defy pronunciation: the Laurentide Ice Sheet, the Cordilleran Ice Sheet, the Fennoscandian Ice Sheet, and many more. These enormous hunks of frozen water pressed down on the Earth’s surface, displacing crustal rock and causing malleable mantle substance underneath to deform and flow out, changing the Earth’s shape—the same way your bottom makes a depression on a couch if you sit on it long enough. Some estimates suggest that an ice sheet about half a mile thick could cause a depression 900 feet deep—about the  of an 83-story building.

The displaced mantle flows into areas surrounding the ice sheet, causing that land to rise up, the way stuffing inside a couch will bunch up around your weight. These areas, called “forebulges,” can be quite small, but can also reach more than 300 feet high. The Laurentide Ice Sheet, which weighed down most of Canada and the northern United States, for example, caused an uplift in the central to southern parts of the U.S. Elsewhere, ancient glaciers created forebulges around the Amazon delta area that are still visible today even though the ice melted long ago.

As prehistoric ice sheets began to melt around 11,700 years ago, however, all this changed. The surface began to spring back, allowing more space for the mantle to flow back in. That caused land that had previously been weighed down, like Glacier Bay Park in Alaska and the Hudson Bay in Canada, to rise up. The most dramatic examples of uplift are found in places like Russia, Iceland and Scandinavia, where the largest ice sheets existed. In Sweden, for example, scientists have found that the rising land severed an ancient lake called Malaren from the sea, turning it into a freshwater lake.

At the same time, places that were once forebulges are now sinking, since they are no longer being pushed up by nearby ice sheets. For example, as Scotland rebounds, England sinks approximately seven-tenths of an inch into the North Sea each year. Similarly, as Canada rebounds about four inches each decade, the eastern coast of the U.S. sinks at a rate of approximately three-tenths of an inch each year—more than half the rate of current global sea level rise. A study published in 2015 predicted that Washington, D.C. would drop by six or more inches in the next century due to forebulge collapse, which might put the nation’s monuments and military installations at risk.

Some of the most dramatic uplift is found in Iceland. (Martin De Lusenet, Flickr CC BY)

Recent estimates suggest that land in southeast Alaska is rising at a rate of 1.18 inches per year, a rate much faster than previously suspected. Residents already feel the dramatic impacts of this change. On the positive side, some families living on the coast have doubled or tripled their real estate: As coastal glaciers retreat and land once covered by ice undergoes isostatic rebound, lowland areas rise and create "new" land, which can be an unexpected boon for families living along the coast. One family was able to build a nine-hole golf course on land that has only recently popped out of the sea, a New York Times article reported in 2009. Scientists have also tracked the gravitational pull on Russell Island, Alaska, and discovered that it’s been weakening every year as the land moves farther from the Earth’s center.

Uplift will increase the amount of rocky sediment in areas previously covered in water. For example, researchers predict that uplift will cause estuaries in the Alaskan town of Hoonah to dry up, which will increase the amount of red algae in the area, which in turn, could damage the fragile ecosystems there. In addition, some researchers worry that the rapid uplift in Alaska will also change the food ecosystem and livelihood for salmon fishers.

At the same time, there are a lot of new salmon streams opening up in Glacier Bay, says Eran Hood, professor of environmental science at the University of Alaska. “As glaciers are melting and receding, the land cover is changing rapidly,” he says. “A lot of new areas becoming forested. As the ice recedes, salmon is recolonizing. It’s not good or bad, just different.” 

The rate of uplift due to glacial isostatic adjustment around the world; Antarctica and Canada are expected to rise the most. (By Erik Ivins, JPL. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Although not as visible, all the changes caused by glacier melt and shifting mantle is also causing dramatic changes to the Earth’s rotation and substances below the earth’s surface.

As our gargantuan glaciers melted, the continents up north lost weight quickly, causing a rapid redistribution of weight. Recent research from NASA scientists show that this causes a phenomenon called “true polar wander” where the lopsided distribution of weight on the Earth causes the planet to tilt on its axis until it finds its balance. Our north and south poles are moving towards the landmasses that are shrinking the fastest as the Earth’s center of rotation shifts. Previously, the North Pole was drifting towards Canada; but since 2000, it’s been drifting towards the U.K. and Europe at about four inches per year. Scientists haven’t had to change the actual geographic location of the North Pole yet, but that could change in a few decades.

Redistribution of mass is also slowing down the Earth’s rotation. In 2015, Harvard geophysicist Jerry Mitrovica published a study in Science Advances showing that glacial melt was causing ocean mass to pool around the Earth’s center, slowing down the Earth’s rotation. He likened the phenomenon to a spinning figure skater extending their arms to slow themselves down.

Glacial melt may also be re-awakening dormant earthquakes and volcanoes. Large glaciers suppressed earthquakes, but according to a study published in 2008 in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters, as the Earth rebounds, the downward pressure on the plates is released and shaky pre-existing faults could reactivate. In Southeast Alaska, where uplift is most prevalent, the Pacific plate slides under the North American plate, causing a lot of strain. Researchers say that glaciers had previously quelled that strain, but the rebound is allowing those plates to grind up against each other again. “The burden of the glaciers was keeping smaller earthquakes from releasing tectonic stress,” says Erik Ivins, a geophysicist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Melting glaciers may also make way for earthquakes in the middle of plates. One example of that phenomenon is the series of New Madrid earthquakes that rocked the Midwestern United States in the 1800s. While many earthquakes occur on fault lines where two separate plates slide on top of each other, scientists speculate that the earthquakes in the New Madrid area occurred at a place where hot, molten rock underneath the Earth’s crust once wanted to burst through, but was quelled by the weight of massive ice sheets. Now that the ice sheets have melted, however, the mantle is free to bubble up once again.

Scientists have also found a link between deglaciation and outflows of magma from the Earth, although they’re not sure why one causes the other. In the past five years, Iceland has suffered three major volcanic eruptions, which is unusual for the area. Some studies suggest that the weight of the glaciers suppressed volcanic activity and the recent melting is 20-30 times more likely to trigger volcanic eruptions in places like Iceland and Greenland.

The wandering poles: Until recently earth's axis had been slowly moving toward Canada, as shown in this graphic; now, melting ice and other factors are shifting Earth's axis toward Europe. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Much of the mystery pertaining to ancient glaciers is still unsolved. Scientists are still trying to create an accurate model of glacial isostatic adjustment, says Richard Snay, the lead author of the most recent study in the Journal of Geophysical Research. “There’s been such software since the early '90s for longitude and latitude measurements but vertical measurements have always been difficult,” says Snay. He and colleagues have developed new equations for measuring isostatic adjustment based off of a complex set of models first published by Dick Peltier, a professor at the University of Toronto. Peltier’s models don’t only take into account mantle viscosity, but also past sea level histories, data from satellites currently orbiting the Earth and even ancient records translated from Babylonian and Chinese texts. “We’re trying to look at glaciation history as a function of time and elasticity of the deep earth,” says Peltier. “The theory continues to be refined. One of the main challenges of this work is describing the effects that are occurring in the earth’s system today, that are occurring as a result of the last Ice Age thousands of years ago.”

Added on to all the unknowns, researchers also don’t know exactly how this prehistoric process will be affected by current patterns of global warming, which is accelerating glacial melt at an unprecedented rate. In Alaska, global warming means less snow in the wintertime, says Hood.

“There is a much more rapid rate of ice loss here compared to many regions of the world,” he says. “The human fingerprint of global warming is just exacerbating issues and increasing the rate of glacial isostatic adjustment.”

And while the effects may vary from city to city—local sea levels may be rising or dropping—it’s clear that the effects are dramatic, wherever they may be. Although many of glaciers have long gone, it’s clear that the weight of their presence still lingers on the Earth, and on our lives.

The Man Who Ran a Carnival Attraction That Saved Thousands of Premature Babies Wasn't a Doctor at All

Smithsonian Magazine

Nurses in starched white uniforms and doctors in medical coats tended to babies in glass and steel incubators. The infants had been born many weeks premature and well below a healthy birth weight. Stores didn’t make clothes small enough to fit their tiny, skeletal frames so the nurses dressed them in dolls’ clothes and knitted bonnets.

A sign above the entrance read “Living Babies in Incubators” in letters so large they could be read from the other end of the Chicago World’s Fair grounds, which took place over 18 months in 1933 and 1934. The infant incubator exhibit was built at a cost of $75,000 (worth $1.4 million today) and was painted in a patriotic red, white and blue.

The men in charge were leading Chicago pediatrician Dr. Julius Hess and Martin Couney, who was known across America as “the incubator doctor.” Couney was a lugubrious man in his 60s, with thinning gray hair, a mustache and a stoop, something he jokingly attributed to a lifetime of bending over babies. Couney and Hess employed a team of six nurses and two wet nurses.

Martin Couney had run infant incubator exhibits, in which premature babies were displayed to the public, for more than three decades, most famously at Coney Island in New York City. He had long been regarded by desperate parents as a savior, one who offered medical help to babies written off as “weaklings” by mainstream medicine.

But for Hess, who was accustomed to carrying out his work in a more conventional hospital setting, this was a career first. 

The exhibit was a hit with the Chicago public who paid 25 cents and flocked by the hundreds of thousands to see the babies.

To celebrate the success of their facility, Couney organized a “Homecoming” celebration on July 25, 1934, for babies who had “graduated” from the incubators at the Chicago’s World’s Fair the previous summer. Of the 58 babies Couney and Hess had cared for in 1933, 41 returned with their mothers for the reunion. The event was broadcast live on local radio and across the fairgrounds.

On the radio program, Couney’s exhibit was portrayed by the announcer not as a frivolous sideshow spectacle, but as an invaluable medical facility:

The Incubator station for premature babies…is not primarily a place of exhibiting tiny infants. Instead, it is actually a lifesaving station, where prematurely born babies are brought from leading hospitals all over the city, for the care and attention that are afforded. The place is spick and span, with doctors and graduate nurses in constant attendance...

Because of the sideshow setting in which he operated, Couney’s career had always been controversial. Many in the medical professional viewed the “incubator doctor” with suspicion, others with outright hostility. The New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children had repeatedly accused Couney of exploiting the babies and endangering their lives by putting them on show.  

None of the complaints was sustained, and by the 1930s, Couney was finally being taken seriously as a medical pioneer. Couney’s professional collaboration with Hess marked a key stage in his habilitation.

But while doing research for my radio documentary Life Under Glass, which is being broadcast on NPR stations around the country this August, and my book, Miracle at Coney Island, I made an incredible discovery about a man who has a claim to have changed the course of American neonatal medicine.

Couney never actually qualified as a medical doctor.

Throughout his career, Couney said he had studied medicine in Leipzig and Berlin. However, I could find no evidence of Couney (or Cohn/Cohen as he was known then) having studied medicine at a university in either city. To become a physician in Germany, one was required to write a thesis. The U.S. National Library of Medicine has copies of the German records: the librarians could not locate a thesis written by Couney.

Couney was deliberately evasive about his date and place of birth. I have discovered that he immigrated to the US in 1888 at 19 years old. But someone of that age would not be old enough to have studied at university in Leipzig and Berlin before going on to do graduate work in Paris at the knee of Pierre Budin, the father of European neonatal medicine, as Couney claimed to have done in numerous press interviews.

In the 1910 U.S. census, Couney listed his career as, “surgical instruments.” Though Couney claimed to be the inventor of an incubator, I have been unable to find any evidence that he registered an incubator patent in the U.S. More likely Couney was a technician. Yet by 1930 he was describing himself in the census as a “physician.” 

Over time, the success of Couney’s facility began to attract the attention of some of America’s leading pediatricians. Right up until the late 1930s, few American hospitals had incubators, so doctors sent premature babies to him.

Couney took in babies from all backgrounds, regardless of race or social class, a remarkably progressive policy, especially when he started out. He did not take a penny from the parents of the babies. In 1903 it cost around $15 (equivalent to around $405 today) a day to care for each baby; Couney covered all the costs through the entrance fees.

Presumably unaware that Couney was not a qualified doctor, pediatricians began coming to the fairgrounds to collaborate with Couney and study the babies in his care.

The distinguished Yale professor, pediatrician and child developmental psychologist Arnold Gesell visited Couney multiple times at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Gesell brought a cameraman with him to film the babies in Couney’s facility.

Interestingly, when Gesell wrote his book, The Embryology of Behaviour: The Beginnings of the Human Mind, he avoided any mention of Couney or the sideshow setting where he had carried out much of his research. By contrast, when in 1922, Hess wrote the first textbook on premature birth published in the U.S., Premature and Congenitally Diseased Infants, he wrote, “I desire to acknowledge my indebtedness to Dr Martin Couney.”

Of all Couney’s professional associations, his friendship with Morris Fishbein, the controversial president of the American Medical Association (AMA), is the most intriguing.

Fishbein was head of the AMA for 25 years and led the Association’s crusade against “quack” doctors. The two men were so close, Fishbein sent his aspiring medic son, Justin, to discuss his career with Couney in New York.

If he had been found out, Couney could have faced a large fine and a lengthy prison sentence.

Over the course of his nearly 50-year career, Couney took in around 8,000 babies, of whom he claimed to have saved around 6,500. While there is no way of verifying the numbers, pediatricians today acknowledge that the team of doctors and nurses which Couney assembled was highly skilled, ensuring the babies got the best care available in America at that time.

For this reason, Dr. Lawrence Gartner, pediatrician and professor emeritus at the University of Chicago believes Couney was an important figure in American medical history.

“I wouldn’t dismiss Martin Couney at all,” says Gartner. “Martin Couney was well-respected by the medical community at that time. His operation was highly respected and well-known to physicians.”

To his former graduates, Couney is a hero to whom they owe their lives. They talk of him as the only man who believed they were worth saving, and, crucially, who was prepared to care for them without charge.

Kathy Meyer was born eight weeks premature in 1939. She was taken to Cornell University’s New York Hospital, which had just opened a training and research center for premature infants, the first facility of its kind on the Eastern Seaboard. When Meyer’s parents were told she’d need to stay in the hospital for several months and realized they couldn’t afford to pay the bills, her pediatrician suggested they send her to Martin Couney at the New York World’s Fair.

Couney sent his incubator ambulance straight to the hospital to collect her.

“I was a sickly baby,” said Meyer. “If it wasn’t for Couney, I wouldn’t be here today. And neither would my four children and five grandchildren. We have so much to thank him for.”

Can Smell Be a Work of Art?

Smithsonian Magazine

Something can look beautiful or sound beautiful, but can it smell beautiful? According to Sissel Tolaas—artist, chemist and smell expert—this is a silly question.

“Of course you can smell something beautiful—beauty is not just something you look at,” she says. “We are equipped with senses to help us navigate and appreciate the world in so many other ways. The nose knows everything long before the eyes.”

The aesthetics of smell has fascinated Sissel for years. Originally from Norway, she has drawn on her studies of math, chemical science and visual art to chisel out a niche of her own between the worlds of art and science: smell design. Using customized smell-collecting tools and a specialized lab, she has created installations that capture smells like “sweat” or “the battlefield,” and provide rich olfactory experiences for gallery goers.

For her latest project, commissioned by the Smithsonian's Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum for the fifth installment of its Design Triennial, she tackled the scent of Central Park. Tolaas has done location-focused works in the past, capturing the scents of places such as Istanbul and Greenland, and with Manhattan’s most famous park in the Cooper Hewitt’s backyard, it made sense to develop a work based on that area.

But as the theme of this year’s Triennial is “Beauty,” Tolaas sought to play against what she calls “the classic clichés” of the word. When someone tries to imagine a “beautiful smell,” he or she might imagine perfume, fragrant food or some other pleasing scent. But for this show, Tolaas says, “I wanted to show the other side, and look at the beauty of decay.”

Image by Cooper Hewit, Smithsonian Design Museum. Mobile Chandelier 9, 2015 by Michael Anastassiades (original image)

Image by Daniel Brown. Still from Darwin flower animation, from On Growth and Form series by Daniel Brown, 2013 (original image)

Image by Wearable sculpture, from ANIMAL: The Other Side of Evolution collection by Ana Rajcevic, 2012 (original image)

Image by Photo by Gideon Levine © Noa Zilberman. Forehead Tiara, from Wrinkle Jewelry collection by Noa Zilberman, 2012 (original image)

Image by Yeongkyu Yoo. Bottle humidifier by Yeongkyu Yoo and cloudandco, 2012 (original image)

Image by Cooper Hewit, Smithsonian Design Museum. Single earring by Delfina Delettrez, 2012 with rubies, diamonds, pearl, gold (original image)

Image by Cooper Hewit, Smithsonian Design Museum. Iddu mirror, from De Natura Fossilium collection, 2014 by Formafantasma, Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin mad of obsidian mirror, lava rock, brass (original image)

Image by Cooper Hewit, Smithsonian Design Museum. Silk taffeta and tulle degradé skirt and top Giambattista Valli, 2014 (original image)

To do this, she visited the park not in summer or spring, when the smell of flowers or plant life would be strongest, but in October, aiming to capture the more complex smells of flora as it begins to die. Using a customized way to collect scent molecules from the original smell source (what Tolaas describes as something akin to a “super-fine vacuum cleaner”), she spent about a week walking through Central Park gathering and sampling all different smells from the 1.3-square-mile expanse.

Once these samples were gathered, she brought them back to her “Re_Search Lab” in Berlin, where she and a team of researchers and developers break down and analyze the individual molecules, drawing out data on the types and quantity Tolaas collected. This lab, supported by chemical manufacturer International Flavours & Fragrances Inc., is where the artist has done much of her work since 2004, and contains her “smell archive” of more than 7,000 scents, captured within rows of airtight jars.

After analyzing the scent molecules of different elements from within Central Park, Tolaas reproduced them as closely as possible, using a “microencapsulation” process, containing them inside tiny capsules. She then mixed them with a latex-based binder, creating a special paint which was applied to the wall of the Cooper Hewitt, which can be activated by touch.

When visitors go to the wall that has been painted with the special paint, just by touching the wall they are able to break the capsules open and release the scent: a scientifically advanced scratch-and-sniff sticker.

“You will see a number of visitors with their noses pressed up against the wall,” says Andrea Lipps, assistant curator at Cooper Hewitt, and one of the organizers of the Triennial, adding that scratching different parts of the wall releases different scents from throughout the park.

Tolaas is just one of 63 designers whose work is included as part of the Triennial. The more than 250 works on display over much of the Cooper Hewitt’s two floors, are divided into themes, such as “Extravagant” (which includes the brightly colored gowns of Giambattista Valli and striking hairstyles of hair artist Guido Palau), “Transgressive” (including the animal headpieces of Ana Rajcevic and the “Wrinkles” jewelry series of Noa Zilberman), and “Elemental” (counting Yeongkyu Yoo’s World Clock of 24 time zones and Formafantasma’s lava sculptures among its works). Tolaas’ work is included as part of the “Ethereal” category of works.

In addition to the scent wall, the installation includes a model of Tolaas’ lab that shows her process for researching and mixing, along with a sampling of more than a dozen isolated smell components, contained in small bottles, set back in a small niche separate from the main wall.

“You see that it is really a scientific process with molecules in a very sterile context,” adds Lipps. “The exhibition itself is trying to challenge visitors to approach design and experiences with objects with much more sensitivity.”

A map accompanies these, showing where Tolaas gathered each component. Isolating these allows visitors to appreciate how the scent came together and appreciate its complexity.

“It’s all about heightening our experience,” says Lipps. “She talks about our body as the hardware, and our senses are our software, and what she is trying to do is sensitize us to use much more of our senses than just our eyes.”

Tolaas hopes that experiences with her work will help visitors to better see, and smell, that scents can be as “beautiful” as any work of visual art.

“By using your nose you understand things much deeper,” she says. “By using your nose for that purpose you understand things more fundamentally, and you never forget—smell memory is the most efficient way to memorize things.”

“Beauty—Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial,” is on view through Aug. 21, 2016 at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, at 2 East 91st Street in New York City.

Appreciating the Art and Architecture of the World’s Airport Towers

Smithsonian Magazine

Smithsonian photographer Carolyn Russo first found herself drawn to air traffic control towers in 2006 on a flight into LaGuardia when she first studied the architectural details and circular windows of that now inactive structure. Over a span of eight years, often traveling alone and carrying all of her gear, including her 33mm digital camera, she visited 23 countries. Negotiating her way through myriad bureaucratic processes to gain access to restricted areas, she took pictures of hundreds of these towering structures, some built by such renowned architects as Eero Saarinen, César Pelli and Gert Wingårdh. In the preface to her new book, The Art of the Airport Tower (Smithsonian Books, 2015), which features more than 100 of her images, Russo writes:

I viewed each tower as both an essential aviation artifact and a vessel with a powerful presence—watching over the vastness of the airport and sky; a non-judgmental cultural greeter; a choreographer or conductor; a mother bird caring for her flock; an omniscient, intelligent structure keeping humans safe. In the presence of the tower, I sensed the complex orchestration of humans.

With that sentiment in mind, these visible icons of a vast air traffic control system that governs the flights of some 50,000 daily aircraft globally, Russo’s photographs pay homage to their prosaic protective function while highlighting their strange and alluring beauty.

She spoke with about her quest to photograph the towers and the exhibition on view at the National Air and Space Museum.

What prompted this idea?

I had been looking at a lot of the work of artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. He did this series of buildings that were out of focus, skyscrapers out of focus, everything as a distortion and refraction. I looked out my plane window at the now-inactive LaGuardia tower, the huge circular, creamy quality of the tower and that’s where the idea sparked.

What’s your favorite tower?

The Edinburgh tower is. It’s the one that I use on the cover. I had a wish list of those I knew I wanted to include: one was the Dubai tower; also, the one in Sydney, Australia.


Art of the Airport Tower

~ Carolyn Russo (author) More about this product
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Tell me a good story.

Every tower had a story. The Bangkok tower in Thailand: I was going to be in China for a photography festival. So I thought, “Oh God, I should really try to do the Bangkok tower,” because at the time it was the tallest [control] tower in the world. And a four-hour flight away from Thailand doesn’t seem that far away. I wrote and wrote for permission and no one was answering any of my emails and so I was not getting access. But when I was a kid, I had a Thai pen pal. Long story short, I reconnected with him through Facebook because he works for a Thai airline or something like that. He actually put my paperwork in front of the right people and got me official access.

But the funny part of that story is, before going there, I have a friend who travels in Thailand and he said, “Hey stay at this hotel, you have really good access—you have a good view of the tower from the hotel.” Of course I stayed at the hotel.

Funny, I jumped through all these hoops to get access and my hotel had a complete view of the tower. However, I did get official access and I was able to get shots from right underneath the tower and up close.

You were there for the demolition of the Wittman tower in Oshkosh, Wisconsin?

I waited months and months and months. When I finally went out there, it wasn’t a one-day process, so I was there for a couple of days. It was bittersweet because a lot of people from the community—they were used to this tower, this tower was a meeting place for years during the annual air show that they held at Oshkosh. And there was this one couple that said they had had their first date at the tower.

How are inactive airport towers being used?

The Kansas Aviation museum is a former terminal and tower and the Newark administrative building used to be a tower. Yes, a lot of historic ones are turned into office spaces, and that’s always nice to see. Many are put on historic [preservation] records. However, just because something is on a historic record doesn’t naturally mean it will be preserved. They still require a funding source.

Is there an architectural period or a part of the world where you’ve found the towers particularly beautiful or innovative?

In the United Arab Emirates, the Dubai tower there and the Abu Dhabi tower—it’s in the shape of a crescent and to me it looks like a flowing robe. When you see it, it looks like something gliding across the desert.

The ones in Spain are fabulous. At the Barcelona airport, not only do you have their new tower, you have these two towers still standing—it’s great that they haven’t knocked down yet.

I was in Scotland, so I specifically went over to photograph the Edinburgh tower, but on the same property, they had their older tower. And then a car ride away was the very old tower, East Fortune, which is on their aviation museum’s property. Those were like bonuses.

The travel must have been a challenge.

I shot in different seasons in 23 countries. My last tower, in Sweden, I shot in the wintertime, with very little sunlight so that was a challenge. I would plan two big trips or a couple of little trips, so I wasn’t globe trotting constantly. I definitely had my trips planned out and I travelled when time and budget allowed.

How does the exhibition differ from the book?

First of all the book has over a hundred images. For the contemporary towers, I’m really focusing probably on the most abstract views. I threw in a couple of normal looking towers. LAX is a normal one to my eye, but it has a lot of different elements to it. And then I have the historic towers, which were more documentary than abstract. I feel like I photographed the two different types of towers in two different styles. The exhibition differs from the book because it shows just 50 of my photographs. The show was a much tighter edit, in terms of what we chose to display.  For the book, I could have put in 500 pictures, I mean, I could have put in 1,000. It was so hard just getting it down to a hundred pictures.

What was involved in the preparation?

There was a lot that went into each shoot in terms of first researching the towers, finding out who to contact—lots of emails, sometimes it was 10 emails, sometimes it was 40 emails, just the amount of paperwork going back and forth to get permission was interesting.  And then before going out for each shoot, I used to sit down with Google maps and map out the airport. I’d always know sunset and sunrise in terms of trying to figure out what time of day I needed to be there and where I needed to stand. I did love working with airport personnel. They’d pick me up in a truck and I’d get to work out of a their truck. When I wasn’t working out of a truck, first thing I would do was to rent a luggage carrier and put all my junk on it, all my camera stuff, my tripod, and that was always a real luxury for me because I didn’t have to carry my camera equipment, I would just lug it around on a luggage cart.

Are there any other anecdotes from behind the scenes?

I was in the Dubai World Central airport, and I had to go by seven guys with machine guns. That was kind of intimidating.

At another airport, I won’t say which; they said they’d have to review every image I took. I had just kind of showed up on the fly, literally, it was a last minute thing. But it was interesting; they really kind of had their back up when I first got there. But I felt like I was an ambassador for the Smithsonian and I could tell everybody about all of the other towers I was doing, I could tell them about the National Air and Space Museum. I felt like it was really connecting me to the aviation community. And I felt like once they learned about the book and the project, they really wanted to be part of this collective overview of airport towers. So by the time I left, I said you know, “Do you want to check my camera again?” They were totally cool about it. “No, you’re okay.” They were offering me cigarettes; we were talking about home life, kids. . .

Carolyn Russo is a photographer and museum specialist for the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C, where the exhibiiton “Art of the Airport Tower” is on view through November 2016. The accompanying book, published by Smithsonian Books, is available here.

The Trouble with Bottled Water

Smithsonian Magazine

In the spring of 2007, the quietly simmering backlash against bottled water began to boil. Responding to well-organized pressure groups, first one, and then a dozen cities across the nation canceled their contracts for bottled-water delivery. Upscale restaurants struck fancy waters from their menus, and college students conducted taste tests intended to prove, once and for all, that most people can't tell the difference between bottled water and tap.

Suddenly bottled water was big news. Every time I opened a newspaper, magazine or Web browser, there was another story announcing that this harmless indulgence is anything but. On the lookout for this sort of material, I nearly drowned in the tidal wave of eco-criticism. With a mounting sense of anticipation—how far will the attacks go?—I watched as reporters, using statistics from academics and environmental groups, blasted away at the bottled-water industry. But curiously, their focus wasn't water, at first. It was oil.

Specifically, the 17 million barrels it takes each year to make water bottles for the U.S. market. (Plastic-making also generates emissions of nickel, ethylbenzene, ethylene oxide, and benzene, but because we're in the thick of the global-warming movement, not the environmental-carcinogen movement, this doesn't get much play.) That's enough oil to fuel 1.3 million cars for a year.

Is 17 million barrels a lot? Yes and no. Total U.S. oil consumption is 20 million barrels a day. But the oil that goes into water bottles themselves doesn't include the energy needed to fill them or to move them to consumers. Every week, a billion bottles snake through the country on tens of thousands of trucks, trains and ships. (In 2007, Poland Spring alone burned 928,226 gallons of diesel fuel.) And then there's the energy it takes to chill water in fridges and to haul the empties off to landfills. It adds up.

Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, estimates that the total energy required for every bottle's production, transport and disposal is equivalent, on average, to filling that bottle a quarter of the way with oil. His finding, undisputed by the water-bottling industry, shocks me. Oil, as we know, is a nonrenewable resource, mostly imported. The hunt for more oil is politically dangerous and expensive, and can be environmentally ruinous.

And then there's the water itself—increasingly important as we enter what's been called the post-Peak Water era. Manufacturing and filling plastic water bottles consumes twice as much water as the bottle will ultimately contain, in part because bottle-making machines are cooled by water. Plants that use reverse osmosis to purify tap water lose between three and nine gallons of water—depending on how new the filters are and what they remove—for every filtered gallon that ends up on the shelf. Cleaning a bottling plant also requires a great deal of municipal water, especially if the end product is flavored. On average, only 60 to 70 percent of the water used by bottling plants ends up on supermarket shelves: the rest is waste.

These costs—water, energy, oil—aren't unique to bottled water. It takes 48 gallons of water to make a gallon of beer, four gallons of water to make one of soda. Even a cow has a water footprint, drinking four gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk. But those other beverages aren't redundant to the calorie-free (and caffeine- and coloring-free) liquid that comes out of the tap, and that's an important distinction.

As 2007 wound down, bottled water sales slowed a bit, but it's hard to say if it was due to activist pressure, cool weather, high prices (oil costs more) or, as Nestlé Waters North America CEO Kim Jeffery says, a lack of natural disasters, which always spur demand. In any event, billions of cases of water continued to march out of supermarkets, and millions of bottles dribbled from everyplace else.

"People don't go backwards," says Arthur Von Wiesenberger, author of The Pocket Guide to Bottled Water and a consultant to the beverage industry. "Once they've developed a taste for bottled water, they won't give it up." Indeed, new bottling plants opened this past year in the United States, Europe, India and Canada; and entrepreneurs announced plans to bottle water in the Amazon, among other fragile landscapes, while Nestlé—the Swiss conglomerate that owns Poland Spring, Calistoga and many other U.S. brands of spring water, not to mention the French Perrier—continues to buy and explore new spring sites.

Overall, Americans drank 29.3 gallons of bottled water per capita in 2007, up from 27.6 gallons in 2006, with the 2007 wholesale revenue for bottled water in the U.S. exceeding $11.7 billion.

Still, among a certain psychographic, bottled water, not so long ago a chic accessory, is now the mark of the devil, the moral equivalent of driving a Hummer. No longer socially useful, it's shunned in many restaurants, where ordering tap is all the rage. Writing in Slate, Daniel Gross calls this new snob appeal entirely predictable. "So long as only a few people were drinking Evian, Perrier, and San Pellegrino, bottled water wasn't perceived as a societal ill. Now that everybody is toting bottles of Poland Spring, Aquafina, and Dasani, it's a big problem."

But is it fashion or is it rising awareness of the bottle's environmental toll that's driving the backlash? I'm starting to think they're the same thing. Fashion drove a certain segment of society to embrace bottled water in the first place, and fashion (green chic, that is) may drive that same segment to reject it. But the imperative to stop global warming—the biggest reason for the backlash—reaches only so far. For some, the imperative to protect oneself from tap water that either tastes bad or is bad, or the simple allure of convenience, may trump planetary concerns.

Bottles ready to be recycled (iStockphoto/Martin Bowker)

The International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), which represents 162 bottlers in the United States, is counting on it. Now in panic mode, the group is deflecting critics left and right. Bottled water uses only 0.02 percent of the world's groundwater, Joseph Doss, the group's president, argues in advertisements and interviews. (Yes, but it takes all those gallons from just a few places.) Other beverages move around the country, and the world, too: it's unfair to single out bottled water for opprobrium. (True: only about 10 percent of bottled water, by volume, is imported in the United States, compared with 25 to 30 percent of wine. But we don't drink 28 gallons of wine per person per year, and wine doesn't, alas, flow from our taps.)

Another industry argument is that bottled water is a healthy alternative to high-calorie drinks. The IBWA says it competes with soda, not tap water. But this appears to be a change in stance. In 2000, Robert S. Morrison, then CEO of Quaker Oats, soon to merge with PepsiCo, distributors of Aquafina, told a reporter, "The biggest enemy is tap water." And Susan D. Wellington, vice president of marketing for Gatorade, also owned by PepsiCo, said to a group of New York analysts, "When we're done, tap water will be relegated to showers and washing dishes." In 2006, Fiji Water took that dig at Cleveland, with its "The Label Says Fiji Because It's Not Bottled in Cleveland" ad.

Since Americans still drink almost twice as much soda as bottled water, it's not surprising that Coca- Cola, owner of vitaminwater and Dasani, and PepsiCo. are covering all their bases. The companies now offer vitamin-fortified sodas, extending what Michael Pollan calls "the Wonder bread strategy of supplementation to junk food in its purest form."

The bottling industry also plays the emergency card: consumers should consider bottled water when tap isn't an option. When the pipes break and pumps fail, of course, but also when you are, well, thirsty. "It's not so easy, walking down Third Avenue on a hot day, to get a glass of tap water," John D. Sicher Jr., editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, a trade publication, says. And, yes, all those plastic bottles, which use about 40 percent less resin now than they did five years ago, really should be recycled, the bottlers all cry. "Our vision is to no longer have our packaging viewed as waste but as a resource for future use," says Scott Vitters, Coke's director of sustainable packaging, says. At the same time, bottlers tend to oppose container-deposit laws, which are funded by the beverage industry, in favor of curbside or drop- off recycling programs, which have, so far, been funded by taxpayers.

Are environmental activists making too much of bottled water's externalities? Surely other redundant, status-oriented consumer products—the latest iteration of an iPod, for example—are worse for the environment, and for those affected by their manufacture (though nobody buys an iPod a day). Michael Mascha, who publishes a bottled-water newsletter, is adamant on the topic: "All I want is to have a choice about what I drink. I want five or six waters to match a dining experience. Fine waters are a treat." Mascha can't help marginalizing the opposition. "The backlash is the green movement," he says, "and it's antiglobalization. They say water shouldn't be a commodity, but why should water be free? Why is it different from food, which we also need to live, or shelter?"

The antiglobalization argument comes from pressure groups such as Food and Water Watch, which runs a "take back the tap" pledge campaign, and Corporate Accountability International (CAI). They have ideological roots in single-issue social and environmental campaigns (curbing sweatshop abuses and old-growth logging, for example). In recent years, such campaigns have converged to challenge the political power of large multinational corporations that, often by exercising free-trade agreements, are presumed to harm the environment and infringe upon human rights, local democracies and cultural diversity.

In the United States, CAI's anti-bottled water campaign—which taps both the environmental and the antiprivatization movements—has a multi-tiered agenda. First, it wants to demonstrate that most people can't discern between bottled and tap water. Second, it informs the public that most bottled water is "just tap" (which isn't, strictly speaking, true). Volunteers also make their points about bottled water's carbon footprint and its expense compared to tap, and then they ask individuals, and local governments, to quit buying it. Depending on the city, CAI may also ask local officials to forswear selling public water to private bottlers.

The group also pushes for water bottlers in the United States to quit undermining local control of water sources with their pumping and bottling. This last bit—opposing the privatization of a public resource—may be too outré for most mainstream news outlets to pick up on, perhaps because it raises sticky questions of ownership and control, and it offends many Americans' ideas about the primacy of capitalism. But while Corporate Accountability's mission to halt corporate control of a common resource might be abstract to most bottled-water drinkers, it isn't the least bit abstract to Californians resisting Nestlé's efforts to build a bottling plant in McCloud, near Mount Shasta, or to Floridians who swam in Crystal Springs until Nestlé began bottling it, or to those residents of Fryeburg, Maine, raging against Nestlé's boreholes and the big silver Poland Spring trucks that haul local water to markets throughout the northeast.

The fate of a spring-fed pond in Maine might not interest the average person slapping down two bucks for a bottle of Poland Spring at a concession stand, but the issue of who controls water may in the long run be even more important than how many barrels of oil are burned to quench the nation's thirst. We can do without oil, but we can't live without water.

Adapted from Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It. Copyright Elizabeth Royte. Published by Bloomsbury.

Europe’s Hypocritical History of Cannibalism

Smithsonian Magazine

In 2001, a lonely computer technician living in the countryside in Northern Germany advertised online for a well-built man willing to participate in a mutually satisfying sexual act. Armin Meiwes’ notice was similar to many others on the Internet except for a rather important detail: The requested man must be willing to be killed and eaten.

Meiwes didn’t have to look far. Two hundred and thirty miles away in Berlin, an engineer called Bernd Brandes agreed to travel to Meiwes’ farmhouse. There, a gory video later found by police documented Brandes’ consensual participation in the deadly dinner. The cannibalism was both a shock to the German public and a conundrum to German prosecutors wanting to charge Meiwes with a crime.

Cannibalism might be humanity’s most sacred taboo, but consent of a victim typically eliminates a crime, explains Emilia Musumeci, a criminologist at the University of Catania, in Italy, who studies cannibalism and serial killers.

More technically, cannibalism is not designated as illegal in Germany’s extensive criminal code: Until that point, laws against murder had sufficed to cover cannibalism. If Brandes had volunteered his own life, how could Meiwes be accused of murder?

Because of his victim’s consent, Meiwes was initially found guilty of something akin to assisted suicide, and sentenced to eight years in jail. Had there not been widespread uproar about the seemingly lenient penalty, Meiwes would be out of jail by now. Instead, the uproar led to a subsequent retrial, where Meiwes was found guilty of killing for sexual pleasure. He will likely spend the rest of his life in jail.

The unusual Meiwes case is just one of the topics to be discussed this weekend at an interdisciplinary cannibal conference to be held at the Manchester Museum—the world’s first, say many attending the meeting.

The idea of a cannibalism conference might sound like the basis for a macabre joke about coffee-break finger food. However, there’s serious cannibal scholarship taking place in many disciplines, says conference organizer Hannah Priest, a lecturer at Manchester University, who has previously hosted other academic meetings on werewolves and monsters under the banner of her publishing company Hic Dragones. “From contemporary horror film to medieval Eucharistic devotions, from Freudian theory to science fiction, cannibals and cannibalism continue to repel and intrigue us in equal measure,” advertises the conference’s website.

When the call for abstracts went out last fall, “our first response was one from anthropology, another one was on heavy metal music and the third was on 18th-century literature,” Priest says. “Academics will quite happily discuss very disturbing things in quite polite terms and forget that not everybody talks about this stuff all the time.”

It is perhaps fitting that the conference should take place in Europe because the region has a long chronicle of cannibalism, from prehistory through the Renaissance, right up to the 21st-century Meiwes case. In addition, the area has bequeathed us a bounty of fictional cannibals, including Dracula, who is arguably the world’s most famous consumer of human blood and a gory harbinger of the current pop culture fascination with vampires and zombies.

Europe boasts the oldest fossil evidence of cannibalism. In a 1999 Science article, French paleontologists reported that 100,000-year-old bones from six Neanderthal victims found in a French cave called Moula-Guercy had been broken by other Neanderthals in such a way as to extract marrow and brains. In addition, tool marks on the mandible and femur suggested that tongue and thigh meat had been cut off for consumption. 

The cannibalism at Moula-Guercy wasn’t an isolated incident in prehistory. In the past decade, researchers have reported other evidence that Neanderthals continued eating each other until just before their disappearance. In one particularly grisly discovery at the El Sidrón cave in Spain, paleontologists discovered that an extended family of 12 individuals had been dismembered, skinned and then eaten by other Neanderthals about 50,000 years ago.

When early Homo sapiens began engaging in cannibalism is a topic of debate, although it is clear they eventually did, says Sandra Bowdler, an emeritus professor of archeology at the University of Western Australia. Evidence is scant that this happened in early human hunter-gatherer communities, she says, although in 2009 Fernando Rozzi, at the Centre National de la Récherche Scientifique, in Paris, reported finding a Neanderthal jaw bone that may have been butchered by early humans.

Even if Europe’s Homo sapiens didn’t consume each other in prehistory, they certainly did in more modern times. References to acts of cannibalism are sprinkled throughout many religious and historical documents, such as the reports that cooked human flesh was being sold in 11th-century English markets during times of famine, says Jay Rubenstein, a historian at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

However, the world’s first cannibal incident reported by multiple, independent, first-hand accounts took place during the Crusades by European soldiers, Rubenstein says.

These first-hand stories agree that in 1098, after a successful siege and capture of the Syrian city Ma’arra, Christian soldiers ate the flesh of local Muslims. Thereafter the facts get murky, Rubenstein says. Some chroniclers report that the bodies were secretly consumed in “wicked banquets” borne out of famine and without the authorization of military leaders, Rubenstein says. Other reports suggest the cannibalism was done with tacit approval of military superiors who wished to use stories of the barbaric act as a psychological fear tactic in future Crusade battles.

Either way, post-Crusade European society was not comfortable with what happened at Ma’arra, Rubenstein says. “Everybody who wrote about it was disturbed,” he says. “The First Crusade is the first great European epic. It was a story people wanted to celebrate.” But first they had to deal with the embarrassing stain.

Part of the problem was that cannibalism at Ma’arra simply didn’t fit in with the European self-image. In medieval times, cultural enemies—not military or religious heroes—were commonly depicted as cannibals or giants, “especially in narratives of territorial invasion and conquest,” argues Geradine Heng, in Cannibalism, The First Crusade and the Genesis of Medieval Romance. “Witches, Jews, savages, Orientals, and pagans are conceivable as—indeed, must be—cannibals; but in the 12th-century medieval imaginary, the Christian European subject cannot.”

By the 16th century, cannibalism was not just part of the mental furniture of Europeans; it was a common part of everyday medicine from Spain to England.

Initially, little bits of pulverized mummies imported from Egypt were used in prescriptions against disease, but the practice soon expanded to include the flesh, skin, bone, blood, fat and urine of local cadavers, such as recently executed criminals and bodies dug up illegally from graveyards, says University of Durham’s Richard Sugg, who published a book in 2011 called Mummies, Cannibals and Vampires: The History of Corpse Medicine from the Renaissance to the Victorians.

Medicinal cannibalism reached a feverish pitch around 1680, Sugg says. But the practice can be traced back to the Greek doctor Galen, who recommended human blood as part of some remedies in the 2nd century A.D., and it continued all the way into the 20th century. In 1910, a German pharmaceutical catalog was still selling mummy, says Louise Noble, who also wrote a book on the topic called Medicinal Cannibalism in Early Modern English Literature and Culture.

While Europeans ate “mummy” to cure their physical ailments, the same culture sent missionaries and colonists to the New World to cure New World indigenous people of their purported barbaric cannibalism, some of which was entirely fabricated as a rationale for conquest, Bowdler says. “It’s certainly possible that Europeans were consuming more human flesh at the time than people in the New World,” Sugg says.

 “It’s a big paradox,” Noble adds. The term cannibal was being used to describe someone inferior while the “civilized in Europe were also eating bits of the human body,” she says.

The word cannibal first entered the English language in the mid-16th century by means of Spanish explorers, says Carmen Nocentelli, a 16th-century comparative literature and culture scholar at the University of New Mexico. It derives from the Spanish word Canibales, which was used by Columbus in his diaries to describe indigenous people of the Caribbean islands who were rumored to be eaters of human flesh, Nocentelli says. In his diaries, it is clear Columbus didn’t initially believe the rumors, she adds.

But the name stuck: Cannibal became a popular term used to describe people in the New World. It was certainly sexier than the Greek and then Latin word “anthropophagi,” which a 1538 dictionary defines as “people in Asia, which eate [sic] men,” Nocentelli says.

Because there’s evidence that colonists exaggerated accounts of cannibalism in the New World, some scholars have argued that all cannibalism reports in the colonies were fictitious. But the balance of evidence suggest some reports were certainly true, Bowdler says, namely, from human blood proteins found in fossilized feces at American Southwest sites to first-hand reports from reliable sources about cannibal practices among Mesoamerican Aztecs and Brazilian Tupinambá. “One of the reasons cannibalism is so controversial is because we have few detailed accounts of how it worked in society,” Bowdler adds.

Bowdler has been compiling a list of well-documented accounts of worldwide cannibalism that she will present at the conference this weekend. In particular, she’ll discuss categories of cannibalism where consuming human flesh is “not considered out-and-out bad” in the society where it is practiced, she says.

One such category is survival cannibalism, where people consume each other out of absolute necessity, such as the 16 survivors of a 1972 plane crash in the Andes mountains or the members of Sir John Franklin’s failed 1845 expedition to the Arctic.

Another category is mortuary cannibalism, the consumption of the dead during their funeral rites, practiced through the 20th century in the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea and the Brazilian and Peruvian Amazon. “This is not, as we may instinctively imagine, morbid and repulsive,” notes the University of Manchester’s Sarah-Louise Flowers in her conference abstract, “but is instead an act of affection and respect for the dead person, as a well as being a means of helping survivors to cope with their grief.”

As some conference attendees compare culturally acceptable categories of human consumption with nefarious cases of cannibal serial killers, other conference presenters will pick apart the presence of cannibals in pop culture, such as the episode of revenge cannibalism in the animated sitcom South Park, the blockbuster popularity of the vampire romance novel series Twilight and the emergence of the Call Of Duty: Zombies video game.

With talk titles like “Flesh-Eaters in London: Cosmopolitan Cannibals in Late 19th-Century Fiction and the Press,” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Inside the Mind of the Cannibal Serial Killer,” and “Bon Appetit! A Concise Defense of Cannibalism,” one can only hope the conference canapés are vegetarian.

The True Story of "Hidden Figures," the Forgotten Women Who Helped Win the Space Race

Smithsonian Magazine

As America stood on the brink of a Second World War, the push for aeronautical advancement grew ever greater, spurring an insatiable demand for mathematicians. Women were the solution. Ushered into the Langley Memorial Aeronautical Laboratory in 1935 to shoulder the burden of number crunching, they acted as human computers, freeing the engineers of hand calculations in the decades before the digital age. Sharp and successful, the female population at Langley skyrocketed.

Many of these “computers” are finally getting their due, but conspicuously missing from this story of female achievement are the efforts contributed by courageous, African-American women. Called the West Computers, after the area to which they were relegated, they helped blaze a trail for mathematicians and engineers of all races and genders to follow.

“These women were both ordinary and they were extraordinary,” says Margot Lee Shetterly. Her new book Hidden Figures shines light on the inner details of these women’s lives and accomplishments. The book's film adaptation, starring Octavia Spencer and Taraji P. Henson, is now open in theaters.

“We've had astronauts, we’ve had engineers—John Glenn, Gene Kranz, Chris Kraft,” she says. “Those guys have all told their stories.” Now it’s the women’s turn.

Growing up in Hampton, Virginia, in the 1970s, Shetterly lived just miles away from Langley. Built in 1917, this research complex was the headquarters for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) which was intended to turn the floundering flying gadgets of the day into war machines. The agency was dissolved in 1958, to be replaced by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as the space race gained speed.

The West Computers were at the heart of the center’s advancements. They worked through equations that described every function of the plane, running the numbers often with no sense of the greater mission of the project. They contributed to the ever-changing design of a menagerie of wartime flying machines, making them faster, safer, more aerodynamic. Eventually their stellar work allowed some to leave the computing pool for specific projects—Christine Darden worked to advance supersonic flight, Katherine Johnson calculated the trajectories for the Mercury and Apollo missions. NASA dissolved the remaining few human computers in the 1970s as the technological advances made their roles obsolete.

The first black computers didn’t set foot at Langley until the 1940s. Though the pressing needs of war were great, racial discrimination remained strong and few jobs existed for African-Americans, regardless of gender. That was until 1941 when A. Philip Randolph, pioneering civil rights activist, proposed a march on Washington, D.C., to draw attention to the continued injustices of racial discrimination. With the threat of 100,000 people swarming to the Capitol, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, preventing racial discrimination in hiring for federal and war-related work. This order also cleared the way for the black computers, slide rule in hand, to make their way into NACA history.

Katherine Johnson at her desk at Langley with a "celestial training device." (NASA)

Exactly how many women computers worked at NACA (and later NASA) over the years is still unknown. One 1992 study estimated the total topped several hundred but other estimates, including Shetterly’s own intuition, says that number is in the thousands.

As a child, Shetterly knew these brilliant mathematicians as her girl scout troop leaders, Sunday school teachers, next-door neighbors and as parents of schoolmates. Her father worked at Langley as well, starting in 1964 as an engineering intern and becoming a well-respected climate scientist. “They were just part of a vibrant community of people, and everybody had their jobs,” she says. “And those were their jobs. Working at NASA Langley.”

Surrounded by the West Computers and other academics, it took decades for Shetterly to realize the magnitude of the women’s work. “It wasn't until my husband, who was not from Hampton, was listening to my dad talk about some of these women and the things that they have done that I realized,” she says. “That way is not necessarily the norm”

The spark of curiosity ignited, Shetterly began researching these women. Unlike the male engineers, few of these women were acknowledged in academic publications or for their work on various projects. Even more problematic was that the careers of the West Computers were often more fleeting than those of the white men. Social customs of the era dictated that as soon as marriage or children arrived, these women would retire to become full-time homemakers, Shetterly explains. Many only remained at Langley for a few years.

But the more Shetterly dug, the more computers she discovered. “My investigation became more like an obsession,” she writes in the book. “I would walk any trail if it meant finding a trace of one of the computers at its end.”

She scoured telephone directories, local newspapers, employee newsletters and the NASA archives to add to her growing list of names. She also chased down stray memos, obituaries, wedding announcements and more for any hint at the richness of these women’s lives. “It was a lot of connecting the dots,” she says.

“I get emails all the time from people whose grandmothers or mothers worked there,” she says. “Just today I got an email from a woman asking if I was still searching for computers. [She] had worked at Langley from July 1951 through August 1957.”

Langley was not just a laboratory of science and engineering; “in many ways, it was a racial relations laboratory, a gender relations laboratory,” Shetterly says. The researchers came from across America. Many came from parts of the country sympathetic to the nascent Civil Rights Movement, says Shetterly, and backed the progressive ideals of expanded freedoms for black citizens and women.

But life at Langley wasn’t just the churn of greased gears. Not only were the women rarely provided the same opportunities and titles as their male counterparts, but the West Computers lived with constant reminders that they were second-class citizens. In the book, Shetterly highlights one particular incident involving an offensive sign in the dining room bearing the designation: Colored Computers.

One particularly brazen computer, Miriam Mann, took responding to the affront on as a her own personal vendetta. She plucked the sign from the table, tucking it away in her purse. When the sign returned, she removed it again. “That was incredible courage,” says Shetterly. “This was still a time when people are lynched, when you could be pulled off the bus for sitting in the wrong seat. [There were] very, very high stakes.”

But eventually Mann won. The sign disappeared.

The women fought many more of these seemingly small battles, against separate bathrooms and restricted access to meetings. It was these small battles and daily minutiae that Shetterly strove to capture in her book. And outside of the workplace, they faced many more problems, including segregated busses and dilapidated schools. Many struggled to find housing in Hampton. The white computers could live in Anne Wythe Hall, a dormitory that helped alleviate the shortage of housing, but the black computers were left to their own devices.

“History is the sum total of what all of us do on a daily basis,” says Shetterly. “We think of capital “H” history as being these huge figures—George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Martin Luther King.” Even so, she explains, “you go to bed at night, you wake up the next morning, and then yesterday is history. These small actions in some ways are more important or certainly as important as the individual actions by these towering figures.”

The book and movie don’t mark the end of Shetterly’s work She continues to collect these names, hoping to eventually make the list available online. She hopes to find the many names that have been sifted out over the years and document their respective life’s work.

The few West Computers whose names have been remembered, have become nearly mythical figures—a side-effect of the few African-American names celebrated in mainstream history, Shetterly argues. She hopes her work pays tribute to these women by bringing details of their life’s work to light. “Not just mythology but the actual facts,” she says. “Because the facts are truly spectacular.”

Children of the ‘80s Never Fear: Video Games Did Not Ruin Your Life

Smithsonian Magazine

In the early 1980s, spurred by the incredible popularity of Atari, Space Invaders and Pac-Man, everyone seemed to be talking about video games, if not obsessively playing them. A 1982 cover of Time magazine screamed “GRONK! FLASH! ZAP! Video Games are Blitzing the World!” If you turned on the radio that year you’d likely hear “Pac-Man Fever,” a Top 40 hit by Buckner & Garcia. Children begged their parents to buy them an Atari for Christmas or to give them a few quarters to drop in Pac-Man’s coin slot. Hollywood movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High presented the video arcade as a quintessential teenage hangout.

Decades later they give off a more innocent retro cool vibe, but arcade video games were treated as objects of urgent fascination and concern when they were new. Kids regarded them as the ultimate playthings and competed to master them and set the high score, or the record for longest time playing Asteroids. Some grown-ups enjoyed them too. Many in positions of authority expressed fears about harmful effects of the electronic amusements and wanted to ban them or regulate their use.

Other adult authorities saw video games not just as diversions or toys, but as essential tools for training young people for a future of high-tech, computerized work and leisure. A magazine story framed the issue as one of essential education in the technology of tomorrow: “Is it somehow more valuable to learn Missile Command than to learn English?”


Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America (MIT Press)

~ Michael Z. Newman (author) More about this product
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This moment in the history of pop culture and technology might have seemed unprecedented, as computerized gadgets were just becoming part of the fabric of everyday life in the early ’80s. But we can recognize it as one in a predictable series of overheated reactions to new media that go back all the way to the invention of writing (which ancients thought would spell the end of memory). There is a particularly American tradition of becoming enthralled with new technologies of communication, identifying their promise of future prosperity and renewed community. It is matched by a related American tradition of freaking out about the same objects, which are also figured as threats to life as we know it.

The emergence of the railroad and the telegraph in the 19th Century, and of novel 20th-century technologies like the telephone, radio, cinema, television and the Internet were all similarly greeted by a familiar mix of high hopes and dark fears. In Walden, published in 1854, Henry David Thoreau warned that, “we do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” Technologies of both centuries were imagined to unite a vast and dispersed nation and edify citizens, but they also were suspected of trivializing daily affairs, weakening local bonds, and worse yet, exposing vulnerable children to threats and hindering their development into responsible adults.

These expressions are often a species of moral outrage known as media panic, a reaction of adults to the perceived dangers of an emerging culture popular with children, which the parental generation finds unfamiliar and threatening. Media panics recur in a dubious cycle of lathering outrage, with grownups seeming not to realize that the same excessive alarmism has arisen in every generation. 18th- and 19th-century novels might have caused confusion to young women about the difference between fantasy and reality, and excited their passions too much. In the 1950s, rock ‘n’ roll was “the devil’s music,” feared for inspiring lust and youthful rebellion, and encouraging racial mixing. Dime novels, comic books and camera phones have all been objects of frenzied worry about “the kids these days.”

The popularity of video games in the ’80s prompted educators, psychotherapists, local government officeholders and media commentators to warn that young players were likely to suffer serious negative effects. The games would influence their aficionados in the all the wrong ways. They would harm children’s eyes and might cause “Space Invaders Wrist” and other physical ailments. Like television, they would be addictive, like a drug. Games would inculcate violence and aggression in impressionable youngsters. Their players would do poorly in school and become isolated and desensitized. A reader wrote to The New York Times to complain that video games were “cultivating a generation of mindless, ill-tempered adolescents.”

The arcades where many teenagers played video games were imagined as dens of vice, of illicit trade in drugs and sex. Kids who went to play Tempest or Donkey Kong might end up seduced by lowlifes, spiraling into lives of substance abuse, sexual depravity and crime. Children hooked on video games might steal to feed their habit. Reports at the time claimed that video kids had vandalized cigarette machines, pocketing the quarters and leaving behind the nickels and dimes.

Nowhere was this more intense than in Mesquite, Texas, a suburb of Dallas where regulation of video arcades became a highly publicized legal affair. The city barred children under 17 from the local Aladdin’s Castle emporium unless accompanied by a parent or guardian. Officials also refused the arcade chain a license to open a new location in a shopping mall on the grounds that the owner was connected with “criminal elements.” Bally, the company that owned Aladdin's Castle, filed suit against Mesquite. The case made its way through the courts until 1982, when the Supreme Court sent the matter back to the appeals court, effectively dodging an opportunity to establish young people’s right to play video games in arcades. In a New York City case of the same year, a court ruled that the municipality could regulate games to curb noise and congestion, finding that games were not a form of protected speech under the First Amendment.

Such cases, among others, were not really about banning or restricting access to video games, however much some adults despised them. Millions of gaming systems were in people’s homes by 1982, and no legal action could remove them. Rather, these efforts sought to regulate the behavior of America’s teenagers. Their presence annoyed adults with their hanging around, maybe skipping school, making fast remarks at passersby, maybe attracting the wrong element, making noise, littering, maybe drinking or smoking dope, and basically being teenagers. Some towns, like Marlborough, Massachusetts and Coral Gables, Florida, managed to keep arcade games out altogether, and others, like Morton Grove, Illinois, managed to prevent arcade openings by enforcing ordinances that forbade businesses from operating more than a certain number of coin-operated machines.

There was a flipside to the freak-out about games and youth, a counterpoint to the panicked discourses that greeted the soaring popularity of the new amusements. Many commentators, particularly social scientists with a skeptical view of the moralizing, sky-is-falling crowd saw great potential benefits in video games, which they identified as cutting-edge technology. Many observers of American society in the 1970s and ’80s had recognized a large-scale shift from work in factories to work in offices, from manufacturing to knowledge and service labor. Among other technologies, electronics and particularly computers were facilitating this shift.

Video games were computerized playthings, often the first introduction to computers young people received, and they could provide a new form of training in the tools of tomorrow’s workplace, the optimists maintained. It was clear that children were learning from the games—how to master them, but also how to interact with digital electronics and computer interfaces. These were “powerful educational tools.” Some kids who were devoted to playing computer games might graduate to programming, making the pastime an introduction to making software. Several news items in the early ’80s profiled kids who sold a video game they had programmed at home, thereby teaching themselves not just technical skills but entrepreneurism. A California teenager named Tom McWilliams, whose parents refused to buy him a computer of his own, sold his game Outpost for $60,000.

Somehow, a generation of teenagers from the 1980s managed to grow up despite the dangers, real or imagined, from video games. The new technology could not have been as powerful as its detractors or its champions imagined. It’s easy to be captivated by novelty, but it can force us to miss the cyclical nature of youth media obsessions. Every generation fastens onto something that its parents find strange, whether Elvis or Atari. In every moment in media history, intergenerational tension accompanies the emergence of new forms of culture and communication. Now we have smartphone addiction to panic about.

But while the gadgets keep changing, our ideas about youth and technology, and our concerns about young people’s development in an uncertain and ever-changing modern world, endure.

Michael Z. Newman is an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  His book, Atari Age: The Emergence of Video Games in America (MIT Press) was released in February, 2017. 

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