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These Rarely Seen Images Show Jazz Greats Pouring Out Their Hearts

Smithsonian Magazine

In the jargon of jazz, a “blue note” is one that deviates from the expected–an improvisational twist, a tickle in the ear. It is fitting that Blue Note Records, founded in New York by German expat Alfred Lion back in 1939, took its name from this artifact of genre, for throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the institution was continually surprising (and delighting) its audience.

From boogie-woogie and bebop to solo stylings and the avant-garde, Lion’s label left no tone unturned. The undisputed quality of Blue Note’s output was the direct result of its creator’s willingness to meet the artists on their level, to embrace the quirks and curveballs that make jazz music what it is. As an early Blue Note brochure put it:

“Hot jazz… is expression and communication, a musical and social manifestation, and Blue Note Records are concerned with identifying its impulse, not its sensational and commercial adornments.”

Little wonder that such luminaries as John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Miles Davis were drawn into the fold: Blue Note treated its artists with the utmost respect and camaraderie, and pushed them to produce original, visceral jazz of the sort attainable only with time and hard work. The music that arose in this atmosphere was like no other.

Perhaps just as powerful as the recordings themselves, however, were the striking black-and-white rehearsal photographs captured by Lion’s childhood friend and fellow German national, Francis “Frank” Wolff—a selection of which, including images of jazz greats Art Blakey, John Coltrane and Ron Carter, is on view through July 1, 2016 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.  

Wolff, after finagling an eleventh-hour escape from the Nazi regime in 1939, rejoined his confrere in the States, where Lion recruited the young photog and jazz enthusiast as his partner at Blue Note Records.

Initially, Wolff’s duties consisted primarily in managing the business side of the company, but by the time the late '40s rolled around, the shutterbug was actively snapping shots at the recording studio, which often took the form of a small Hackensack house owned by the parents of sound engineer Rudy van Gelder.

Wolff’s images are something to behold, largely by dint of the sheer expressive candor of the subjects they depict. As Herbie Hancock has noted, “You weren’t aware he was taking pictures—they were never posed shots.” We see in Wolff’s oeuvre tightly closed eyes, sweat-smothered brows and taut muscles; cracked, wrinkled fingers dancing over faithful, time-scarred instruments; smoke rising sensually above gleaming brass trumpets; heads bowed in devotion.

We also perceive contrast of the starkest sort. Indeed, the illuminated artists in Wolff’s work are frequently set against pitch-black, cosmic backgrounds, an effect achievable through shrewd employment of an off-camera flash. In individual portraits of this nature, we see lone musicians pouring their hearts into the void. In other images, the light is evenly shared among collaborators whose aim is mutual betterment. In this way, Wolff gets at the fundamental yin-yang of jazz: the solo vs. the shared melody, the shine of personal achievement vs. the warmth of symbiotic feedback.

Wolff’s visual catalog of jazz in action was far from incidental to the success of Blue Note’s brand. With the advent of the 12-inch long-playing record, his images found a perfect home: album sleeves, which were suddenly large enough to accommodate ambitious, eye-catching designs.

His gritty portraiture rapidly became a hallmark of the Blue Note aesthetic, as did the typographical and formatting flourishes of graphic designer Reid Miles. In Wolff’s own words, “We established a style, including recordings, pressings and covers. The details made the difference.”

Beyond the fact that his photographs were featured on iconic album covers, it is the sheer size of Wolff’s body of work—comprising thousands of images captured over the span of two decades—that cements its status as a groundbreaking cultural inventory. Curiously, had Blue Note not gone out of its way to pay its artists for rehearsal time (a truly innovative concept), Wolff’s prolificness would likely have been much diminished, since the noise of a snapping camera was generally unwelcome in the context of a bona fide recording session.

David Haberstich, curator of photography at the National Museum of American History, highlighted the above point when interviewed, stressing that, by virtue of the largesse of Alfred Lion’s label, musicians were often afforded three or more rehearsals before each recording session—giving Francis Wolff precious opportunities in which to, as Haberstich put it, “click away.”

In sum, it was the artistically vibrant climate engendered by Blue Note Records that precipitated both the masterpiece albums and vital jazz photographs we are so fortunate to have access to today. Blue Note classics are liable to be found in any record store imaginable, but the rare opportunity to view Francis Wolff’s compelling images lasts but a few months at the Smithsonian.

“The Blue Note Photographs of Francis Wolff” is on view through July 2, 2016 at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Enjoy other events and happenings as the museum celebrates Jazz Appreciation Month.

These Rarely Seen Photographs Are a Who's Who of the Harlem Renaissance

Smithsonian Magazine

Carl Van Vechten, a familiar figure among New York City’s literary and artistic circles in the early 20th century, tried his hand as a novelist, critic and journalist, to varying results, before picking up a camera in 1932. He proved a natural photographer. But perhaps more importantly, he had built relationships (in some cases decades-long) with many of the brightest artistic lights of the era, who were happy to pose for him: James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne and dozens of others.

Visitors to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., have a rare opportunity to see a selection of his images—39 photographs, many of which are on view for the first time since they were acquired in 1983. The works cover a period of three decades and are some of the most striking portraits created of the groundbreaking writers, athletes, politicians, musicians of the Harlem Renaissance. Yet the man behind the camera is remembered more as a socialite and writer than a photographer. The museum’s exhibition “Heroes of Harlem: Photographs by Carl Van Vechten” aims to change that.

“Carl Van Vechten had a relatively natural style,” explains John Jacob, the museum’s curator of photography and the curator of this show. “His portraits are posed, but they’re close-up and direct, focusing on the facial and bodily expressions of his subjects. They’re formal, but they have the familiar qualities of a snapshot.”

This natural approach and the fact that Van Vechten was perceived as a polymath or dilettante—depending on your point of view, partly explain why his photography has not received more consideration.

Studio photographers such as James Van Der Zee and James Latimer Allen lived in the area and captured their community on film. Others, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, came as reporters. But Van Vechten’s motives were different than theirs.

“Van Vechten the photographer didn’t plan his portrait of Harlem. African Americans were among the social milieu in which he circulated, and their inclusion in it, at a time when exclusion was the norm, makes his project unique,” says Jacob.

While other photographers of the era saw themselves as creating art, Van Vechten saw himself creating a catalog—first of his friends and fellow artists, and after several years, focusing particularly on African-American artists and people of prominence.

“He wanted to capture the breadth of American artistic culture, including the African-American community,” says Jacob. More so than perhaps any other individual, he succeeded in this mission, leaving behind thousands of photographs, spread throughout the archives of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Yale University, the Library of Congress, and elsewhere.

The 39 portraits included in this exhibition are delicate 35 mm nitrate negatives, restored by photographer Richard Benson for art book publisher Eakins Press Foundation. They were part of two collections Van Vechten had created: Heroes of Harlem (a portfolio of 30 portraits of African-American men) and Noble Black Women (a collection of 19 portraits of African-American women). While the Eakins Press Foundation would eventually combine both portfolios into the collection O, Write My Name: American Portraits, Harlem Heroes, the current exhibition displays the portraits from these prototype portfolios in its entirety, organized chronologically by exposure date (when the photograph was made).

“Visitors to the exhibition will see that Carl Van Vechten’s portraiture shaped an inclusive catalog of the era in which he lived and worked,” says Jacob. “That era, and the Harlem Renaissance within it, was a defining moment in our history that reverberates to this day in American culture.”

Collecting was Van Vechten’s focus.

“He tried to capture every important figure of the [Harlem Renaissance],” says Emily Bernard, professor of English and ALANA U.S. Ethnic Studies at the University of Vermont, as well as author of the 2012 Van Vechten biography Carl Van Vechten and the Harlem Renaissance. “He was interested in knowing people and collecting people and creating bonds for others—understanding how people could help each other.”

Bernard describes him as an “under-considered figure in African-American cultural history,” and attributes this in part to the fact that the photographer was white, but also to the fact that he seemed restless in his artistic pursuits, jumping from one interest to another throughout his life.

A pioneering dance and music critic, Van Vechten was also a novelist, who published a book set within the Harlem nightlife scene—and which included a startling racial epithet in its title. The novel’s depiction of African Americans and the offensive title, led it to receive wide derision (and patches of praise) among the Harlem community. Historian David Levering Lewis would famously dub it a “colossal fraud.” After this book, Van Vechten published another novel and book of essays, but then stopped writing altogether, outside of his letters.

“That’s just who he was—‘I’m done with that,’” says Bernard.

But if there is one effort that consumed Van Vechten throughout his life, it was meeting the creative figures of his era, placing himself in the center of any social circle.

Bernard is also the editor of Remember Me to Harlem (2001), a collection of letters between Van Vechten and Langston Hughes over their long and lively friendship. In addition to Hughes, Van Vechten corresponded with dozens of Harlem writers, musicians and intellectuals, saving all the letters and even making notes such as “met” next to the name. He painstakingly catalogued and preserved these letters, as well as hundreds of slides, which he donated to Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Van Vechten saw it as a badge of accomplishment to meet a prominent person—or introduce two important people to one another.

“It’s inarguable that he was a megalomaniac,” says Bernard. “He understood his place in the culture—that he was at the vortex, that he was the person who brought Gertrude Stein together with so many Harlem Renaissance figures that she would never have met.”

But he was not selfish in his sociability. Bernard sees both Van Vechten’s archive and his photography as “another arm of his work to connect people. He created the archives so people could understand the totality of the culture and what was happening in the early 20s through the 30s and 40s, so writers and readers could make a connection with this time.” She adds that, “He really wanted to educate from beyond the grave, ‘here’s what was happening in the culture.’”

Instead of seeing his photographs as reflective of his own art, he saw it as a way of preserving the world and the figures he is observing, saving them for posterity.

“His photography is unapologetically about the subject,” says Bernard. “He had a really precise sense that those photos were going to be archived. That was part of the artistic process for him.”

To help with this educational mission, he would even introduce props into his work, such as flowers surrounding Altonell Hines or a guitar for Josh White; and used the setting or backdrop to help convey something about the person, such a boxing ring for Joe Louis or landscape backdrop for Bessie Smith.

Collectively, these photographs try to make sense of the exciting and fast-changing culture of the time and “capture the essence of his subjects,” as Bernard puts it. “When you read about them you sense there is a whole matrix, not just individual subjects, but a whole world—and Van Vechten is the insider to that world; there was no one who was more important.”

She emphasizes that looking at these images today, a viewer will see how well Van Vechten knew his subjects, and that he wants to share this knowledge.

“He really was concerned about the viewer—he did this for you,” says Bernard. “He wanted the audience to know them as he knew them.”

"Harlem Heroes: Photographs by Carl Van Vechten" is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. through March 29, 2017.

These Tiny Satellites Can Be Launched Into Space for as Little as $1,000

Smithsonian Magazine

Making the cut for NASA's astronaut program isn't a prerequisite for doing outer space research. A team of students at Arizona State University have created tiny satellites that can be launched into space for as little as $1,000, hundreds of times cheaper than traditional satellites. The 3-centimeter-wide devices, called SunCube FemtoSats, could make the barrier for space research much, much lower.

“We’ve been constantly in the mode of trying to miniaturize space electronics,” says Jekan Thanga, assistant professor at Arizona State's School of Earth and Space Exploration and head of the Space and Terrestrial Robotic Exploration (SpaceTREx) Laboratory. “About six months ago, we realized we could get to some incredible price points…that was very compelling for us.”

The solar-powered FemtoSats, which can be sent to space as cargo from any facility with launch capabilities, come equipped with power systems, tiny computers, radios and cameras. As Thanga explains, they could work alone or in swarms. Alone, they could carry individual experiments into space. In a swarm, they could provide real-time looks at, say, a damaged spacecraft, enabling engineers to see necessary repairs. Thanga envisions swarms of FemtoSats travelling aboard larger spacecraft on interplanetary missions, to be deployed as helpers at critical moment, such as when the spacecraft unfurls a telescope.

In the immediate term, Thanga has four main goals for the FemtoSats. First, he’d like to see them used in STEM education, with students as young as middle schoolers designing and launching their own experiments.

“For students, having the ability to build their own spacecraft I think will be a quite a compelling experience,” he says. “We hope that will produce some unique skills. The small space sector needs all the people it can get. This is really a method to train the next generation.”

Second, Thanga sees the satellites as being useful for miniaturized versions of current experiments. Third, the cubes could be used to perform artificial gravity experiments, which are important for biochemical and pharmaceutical research into how humans fare in outer space. Fourth, the cubes could be used as personal space cameras, letting ordinary people explore space and see Earth from above.

Eventually, the FemtoSats could be commercially available. Thanga speculates that perhaps they could be purchased on sites, such as Amazon, as part of a pre-paid package—a set fee would get a user the satellite plus a spot on a future launch. 

Thanga hopes to get a prototype of the FemtoSats into space within the next year or so. If the first trials don’t work, the team can simply try again, something that would be unfeasible with more expensive satellites.

“There are still a lot of unknowns. There are high risks of failure, and so the ability to send and then resend literally makes this a sandbox that can help accelerate the field,” Thanga says. 

Thanga’s team is also working on technologies that will help increase the FemtoSats’ volume. They might use mechanical devices that unfurl or telescope out of the satellite cube. They’re also looking at inflatable devices that carry a powder that becomes gas once in outer space, expanding the inflatable into a larger space. This would allow the FemtoSats to carry larger-sized experiments, or to take advantage of larger antennae or other in-space devices. 

In the future, Thanga imagines FemtoSats as an army of observation devices that watches Earth’s surface at a much more granular level than larger, more expensive satellites. For instance, FemtoSats riding on larger spacecraft could monitor planetary activity, such as volcanic eruptions on Jupiter’s innermost moon, Io; track rare animals; or look out for minor meteorite hits. They could also watch for rare, scientifically interesting weather phenomena, such as “gigantic jets,” or lightning that strikes from the Earth’s mid-atmosphere up towards space.

“They’re eyes in space,” Thanga says. 

These Women Composers Should Be Household Names Like Bach or Mozart

Smithsonian Magazine

What did it take to be a great classical composer? Genius was essential, of course. So too was a sustained education in composition. Usually, the great composer needed a professional position, whether court musician, conservatory professor, or Kapellmeister, and the authority, income and opportunities provided by that position. A great composer required access to the places where music is performed and circulated, whether cathedral, court, printers or opera house. And most, if not all, had wives, mistresses and muses, to support, stimulate and inspire their great achievements. There is, of course, a simpler answer: be born male.

The good news is that, although it might have been easier to achieve as a man, there are many painfully underappreciated female composers who were undoubtedly great. These forgotten women achieved artistic greatness despite the fact that for centuries the idea of genius has remained a male preserve; despite working in cultures which systematically denied almost all women access to advanced education in composition; despite not being able, by virtue of their sex, take up a professional position, control their own money, publish their own music, enter certain public spaces; and despite having their art reduced to simplistic formulas about male and female music — graceful girls, vigorous intellectual boys.  Many of these women continued to compose, despite subscribing to their society’s beliefs as to what they were capable of as a woman, how they should live as a woman, and, crucially, what they could (and could not) compose as a woman. That’s often where their true courage lies.

Yes, women wrote music, they wrote it well, and they wrote it against the odds.

Take Francesca Caccini, whose opera La Liberazione di Ruggiero (the first written by a woman) so inspired the King of Poland that he rushed back to his home country from Florence, Italy, determined to create his own opera house — and invited Caccini to provide the first works for it.

What of Barbara Strozzi, who had more music in print in the 17th century than any other composer and was known and admired far beyond her native Venice?

Then there’s Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, acknowledged to be the first French composer of sonatas (avant-garde music in those days) and seen as the natural successor to Lully, who was the superstar of French music at the time.

And that only takes us up to 1700. Closer to our own time, things ironically became in some ways more difficult for women: the ideal of the “angel in the home” would be deadly to many a female composer’s professional, public career. A composer such as Fanny Hensel wrote one of the great string quartets of the 19th century and one of the great piano works of her era (Das Jahr) — along with over 400 other works — but due to her family’s views about a woman’s place, the vast majority of her works remained unpublished. The rest ended up in an archive, controlled by men who did not value (“She was nothing. She was just a wife”) and certainly did not share, what they had. Doesn’t make her any less great, though.

Clara Schumann, certainly one of the great pianists of the 19th-century, silenced herself as a composer for many reasons, none of them good. The usual interpretation is that she was overwhelmed by the demands of motherhood (Clara had eight children, seven of whom survived childhood), coupled with the need to support her seriously ill husband, Robert, himself a famed composer. However, she wrote some of her greatest works (her Piano Trio, for example) during acutely stressful times as a young wife and mother, and even when Robert was slowly dying in an asylum, Clara continued the most punishing of touring schedules, spending months on the road away from her family. It was Clara herself who, after Robert’s death, stopped composing, working tirelessly instead to promote her husband’s work and creating the (male) canon that would, ironically, exclude her. The music she did write is good, sometimes great: what she was capable of we will never know.

Nor will we know what turn-of-the-20th-century composer Lili Boulanger, dead at 24, would have created she had not been felled by what we now know to be Crohn’s Disease. Seriously ill from her teens, Boulanger nevertheless was the first woman to win the prestigious Prix de Rome in her native Paris, and spent her final years composing furiously against the clock: powerful, haunting (great?) works that leave the listener struck with their beauty and, some would say, faith.

What about the prolific Elizabeth Maconchy, who has been described as Britain’s “finest lost composer”? Her luscious work, The Land, was performed at the 1930 Proms to international acclaim (“Girl Composer Triumphs” screamed the headlines — she was 23), and she would compose a series of string quartets that have been compared to those of Shostakovich. Like Boulanger, Maconchy faced an early death. Just two years after her Proms triumph, Maconchy contracted tuberculosis and was told she stood no chance against the disease – unless she moved to Switzerland, and even then the odds weren’t good. Maconchy’s response? She wanted to die in her English homeland. Maconchy and her new husband, William LeFanu, moved to a village in Kent, where they resolutely, some would say naively, set up home in a three-sided wooden hut complete with piano, always open to the elements, providing an extreme version of the “fresh-air cure” of the time. William nursed his wife assiduously through some terrible times. Whether it was the three-sided hut, the care of her husband, or the composer’s sheer willpower, Elizabeth Maconchy did not die. In fact, she lived until 1994, continuing to compose into old age.  

Image by Modern Music & Musicians, University Society, New York, 1918 via Wikicommons. Clara Schumann (1819 - 1896) was a German musician and composer. (original image)

Image by via WIkicommons. Portrait of Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1665 - 1729), French 17th century composer. (original image)

Image by Programmheft Kasseler Musiktage, via Wikicommons. Fanny Mendelssohn (1805 - 1847), Fanny Hensel after her marriage, was a German pianist and composer. (original image)

Image by George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress) via Wikicommons. American composer and pianist Amy Beach (1867-1944) (original image)

Maconchy, for one, did everything that her American predecessor, Amy Beach, suggested needed to be done to create a world in which the public would “regard writers of music” and estimate “the actual value of their works without reference to their nativity, their color, or their sex.” Get your work out there, advised Beach in Etude magazine in 1898: compose “solid practical work that can be printed, played, or sung.” Maconchy herself wanted to be called “a composer,” insisting on the absurdity of the term “woman composer” and reminding us, if we need reminding, that if you listen to an unknown piece of music, it is impossible to tell the sex of its creator. Have we reached Beach’s utopia? I think not.

What is striking about these women, is that each worked so hard not only to have the chance to compose, but to get her music out into the (traditionally male-dominated) public world. Barbara Strozzi, denied access to Venetian opera - let alone a job at St Mark’s - because of her sex, made sure that she reached audiences throughout Europe by using the new media, print. Fanny Hensel, denied the professional, international opportunities seized by her brother, Felix Mendelssohn, created a special musical salon in Berlin. Lili Boulanger, after watching and learning from the failure of her older sister, Nadia, to break through the Parisian glass ceiling on talent alone, smashed through it herself by presenting herself in public at least as a fragile child-woman. And, for the future, we need to create spaces in which we can hear women’s music, not simply because they are women, but so that we can decide for ourselves whether they are “great.”  We might even, perhaps, be enriched by their — whisper it — genius.

This African Warrior Ceremony Was Highly Intimidating

Smithsonian Channel
When France sent ambassador Jean-Marie Bayol to Dahomey to secure a deal for the kingdom's rich natural resources, he was greeted by an elite force of all-women warriors known as the Agooji. Their ferocity set the tone for negotiations. From the Series: Epic Warrior Women: Africa's Amazons

This Glass Frog’s Heart Is Visible Through Its Skin

Smithsonian Magazine

Glass frogs are pretty remarkable creatures. Of the 150 species, many have transparent abdomens that give viewers a glimpse into their inner workings—guts, heart and all. Now, as Mindy Weisberger reports for Live Science, a new species has joined their delicate ranks. And it's even more translucent than the rest.

The species, dubbed Hyalinobatrachium yaku, is just two centimeters long and sports markings similar to other glass frogs in the region. So identifying the new species was far from easy; researchers used a combination of the frog's unusually long call in the wild and DNA tests conducted back in the lab, Lou del Bello reports for New Scientist. The researchers identified three populations of H. yaku in three separate areas in the Amazonian lowlands of Ecuador, detailing their find this week in the journal ZooKeys 

“I work with frogs every day and this is one of the most beautiful species I have ever seen,” Juan Guayasamin, researcher at Ecuador’s Universidad San Francisco de Quito, tells del Bello. Though the glass frog appears similar to its relatives, its dark green spots and extra large transparent patch sets it apart.

But the new species is also unusual in other ways. Glass frogs are known to cling to the undersides of leaves that overhang small rivers and streams while guarding clutches of eggs. When the tadpoles hatch, they drop into the stream below. And that's just what the researchers found at two of the locations. But in the third population, some 70 miles away, the frogs all seemed to prefer hanging out in shrubs and on ferns several inches above the ground—and roughly 90 feet from the nearest waterway.

It’s likely that the new frog has an even wider distribution than the three places the scientists have found so far, extending all the way into Peru. But it’s also possible, the researchers note, that the newly discovered creature may already be threatened or endangered. Glass frogs of every species require large undivided tracts of forest to survive, and roads can act as barriers.

But researchers can't yet say how the latest glass frog is faring. “We do know...that its habitat is rapidly disappearing. Oil production has expanded greatly in this species’ range, and road building is rampant,” Paul Hamilton, founder the non-profit Biodiversity Group tells del Bello.

According to a press release, it is often difficult to determine the range of glass frogs and other small amphibians. These tiny creatures are difficult to find in the wild. And don't count on easily identifying many previously collected critters in museums—preservation methods often destroy distinguishable markings like color and spots.

But that doesn't mean scientists aren't looking. Del Bello reports that between 100 and 200 new species of amphibian are discovered each year. In 2015, researchers in Costa Rica identified another new type of glass frog that looks remarkably like Kermit.

Though scientists can't say for sure if the creatures are in trouble, Hamilton hopes this latest find can raise awareness of the dangers of fossil fuel extraction in the Amazon. And if the abstract threat of losing these creatures isn't enough to make you care, take another look at the glass frogs. Their tiny, visibly beating hearts may just make you feel something in yours.

This Guy Got Himself Stung 1,000 Times For Science—Here’s What He Learned

Smithsonian Magazine

Justin Schmidt has been stung more than 1,000 times by nearly 100 different insect species. Some would call that madness. He calls it science.

Schmidt, an entomologist at the University of Arizona, is the author of a new book called The Sting of the Wild, which seeks to quantify every one of those stings and rank them on a scale of 1 to 4. At the low-end of the scale you have creatures like sweat bees and Southern fire ants. At the top, you meet beasts with names like the warrior wasp and the bullet ant.

But the numbers are just the beginning. For our amusement—or perhaps commiseration—Schmidt has provided a sentence or two about the quality of each sting. The bullhorn acacia ant, for instance, garners a respectable score of 2 on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index, a sensation he compares to having a staple fired into your cheek. Interestingly, Schmidt differentiates between stings of the same intensity as a sommelier would fine wines. The sting of the artistic wasp, also a 2, is described thusly, “Pure, then messy, then corrosive. Love and marriage followed by divorce.”

Entertaining as the index can be—entertaining enough to earn an Ig Nobel prize last year, an award that is widely celebrated, if not coveted—there’s so much else in this book about stinging insects that most people will find surprising.

For starters, did you know every insect you’ve ever been stung by was a female? That’s because male insects have no stingers.

Stingers evolved from a female reproductive organ called an ovipositor, which you can think of simply as an egg-laying tube. In some species, the males do possess hardened, thorn-like genitalia that they jab into attackers, but this is all a ruse. The difference is like that between a dull thumbtack and a hypodermic needle full of neurotoxin.

Another bit of biology may come as a comfort the next time yellow jackets descend upon your backyard barbecue.

“Insects see the world differently than we do,” says Schmidt. For them, sight and sound are far less important than smell.

Schmidt once performed an experiment with Africanized honeybees where he approached three large colonies while breathing in through his nose and exhaling through a long tube. This species, known colloquially as killer bees, is rumored to be fiercely territorial, unpredictable, and ultimately deadly, but Schmidt was able to walk right up to the nests, wave his arms about, clap his hands, and even gently poke a glove into the writhing mass of insects without triggering a My Girl-like response.

Everything changed though the minute he spit out the tube and huffed his breath at the hive from six to eight inches away.

“The bees just exploded,” says Schmidt. “Like someone set off a bomb in the middle of them.” 


The Sting of the Wild

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What about our breath gets Africanized honeybees, yellow jackets, and other social wasps so riled up? Hint: It’s not the garlic on your pizza.

Like all mammals, human breath contains carbon dioxide, as well as a cocktail of compounds including aldehydes, ketones, alcohols and esters. Over millions of years, the insects have learned that if they sense this combination of smells, it probably means a bear or honey badger is coming to wreck their home and devour their young. Can we really blame them for responding accordingly?

Obviously, humans can’t hold our breath indefinitely, and you’re unlikely to have a length of hose with you the next time you inadvertently stir up some bees. But Schmidt says nearly everyone can hold their breath for at least thirty seconds, during which time you should put your head down, resist the urge to flail, and calmly ghost out of Dodge.

By the way, killer bees only garner a 2 on the index. Though Schmidt does give the species a special accommodation of a 3 for one particular incident, a sting sustained to the tongue after a bee crawled inside his soda can. So reads the description: “For 10 minutes life is not worth living.”

This is far from the only time Schmidt has had a bee in his mouth. Aside from holding male bees between his lips to shock (and educate) schoolchildren, Schmidt has actually chomped down on more than few insects in his day.

In one instance, he wanted to know how a kingbird perched outside his office at the University of Arizona was gorging itself on a nearby colony of Africanized honeybees. Unlike African and Asian bee-eaters, which catch bees in their beaks and then bash them off a branch to remove the stingers, the kingbird was knocking back bee after bee like a pelican does fish.

After collecting 147 regurgitated pellets the kingbird left below its perch, Schmidt discovered the bird’s secret—every single one of carcasses was a male. The bird had learned to tell the difference between stingless males and stinging females in midflight. But Schmidt suspected the sting was only part of the equation, since other birds have learned how to deal with stingers.

To investigate, he captured a bunch of male and female bees from the same hive, then dissected them into three parts—the head, thorax, and abdomen. One by one, he popped them into his mouth and crunched down, using his own senses to approximate that of other predators.

“Our sense of taste is pretty much generic,” he explains. “In other words, what something tastes like to me is probably similar to what it’s going to taste like to a raccoon, opossum, skunk, shrew, or other non-specialist predators.”

The taste test results were striking. The heads of female bees tasted like “nasty, crunchy fingernail polish” and the abdomen echoed a sort of corrosive turpentine. Lacking large exocrine glands in the abdomen and strong pheromones in the head, the males, on the other hand, tasted a bit like custard. That kingbird knew what he was doing.

Other sense-based insights have been gained less voluntarily. For instance, did you know some yellow jacket species can spray their venom? Schmidt learned that while halfway up a tree, teetering over a cliff, trying to capture a nest in Costa Rica. He was wearing a head-net, which kept the yellow jackets from stinging his face, but did nothing to protect him from the streams of venom they shot through the mesh and directly at his eyes. That was a new one.

You might think after so much pain, the stings would start to feel the same, but Schimdt confirms that one species remains the holy grail of stinging insects. And that’s the bullet ant.

“In fact, if I made a 5 on the scale, it would be just the bullet ant and nothing else,” he says.

Initially, the sting of tarantula hawks and warrior wasps are just as bad, but it’s the staying power of the bullet ant’s wallop that pushes it beyond the rest. It’s a “pure, intense, brilliant pain” that comes in waves lasting up to 36 hours. The description from the Index says it all: “Like walking over flaming charcoal with a 3-inch nail embedded in your heel.”

Perhaps the weirdest thing you’ll learn while reading The Sting of the Wild though? After 200-some pages of venom, Schmidt kind of (sort of, almost) leaves you yearning for a good sting.

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

Smithsonian Magazine

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

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


American Holiday Postcards, 1905-1915: Imagery and Context

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2.    Monsters Are Real

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

3.    Fear at the Freer

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

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

4.    Ghoulish Gardens

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

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

5.    Sandra Cisneros exhibit

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

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

6.    Day of the Dead Celebration

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

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

7. Virtual Celebrations of Day of the Dead

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

This High-Ranking Viking Warrior Was a Woman

Smithsonian Magazine

More than a thousand years ago, a Viking woman was laid to rest with the full honors of a mighty warrior, including weapons, armor and two horses. But when researchers discovered her remains in 1880s, the weaponry led them to assume this mighty she was a he. Now, over 130 years later, DNA tests have shown that this high-ranking Viking warrior was actually a woman.

"Though some Viking women buried with weapons are known, a female warrior of this importance has never been determined and Viking scholars have been reluctant to acknowledge the agency of women with weapons," the researcher write in the study published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

Much of the history of women warriors has been passed as legend or myth—mere stories of s0-called "shieldmaidens," or women who fought alongside the men.​ The warrior Brynhildr, for example, appears in several epic poems and sagas, and was later memorialized in Richard Wagner's "Ring Cycle" operas. Yet many believe that these myths are rooted in some truth. One example is the long-raging debate around the existance of the legendary Amazon women of Greek mythology, who have risen to fame with the Wonder Woman comics and movie.

This latest study of the Viking warrior, found in a grave in the Swedish town of Birka, is the first strong evidence that these legendary high-ranking women warriors actually existed, writes Louise Nordstrom for The Local"What we have studied was not a Valkyrie from the sagas but a real life military leader, that happens to be a woman," archaeologist Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, lead author of the study, says in a statement.

The grave in question contains the trappings of a Viking officer, including a full set of gaming pieces that were used to strategize battle tactics, writes bioarchaeologist Kristina Killgrove for Forbes. The warrior was around 30 years old at death, and relatively tall for the time, standing at five and a half feet. Because of its burial setting, archaeologists had simply long assumed that the skeleton found in this grave was from a man, but Anna Kjellström noticed that the skeleton seemed to have more physical characteristics of a female rather than a male skeleton.

To test the sex of the individual, researchers extracted DNA of the canine tooth and upper arm. Analysis of this genetic material showed that the individual had X chromosomes and lacked a Y chromosome, which indicates the remains belonged to a woman. Analysis of isotopes found in the bones also suggests that the woman likely lived an itinerant lifestyle before settling down in Birka later in life.

More than 3,000 Viking graves are known to exist at Birka, with many yet to be excavated and studied, Killgrove writes. This latest discovery suggests that archaeologists should not let preconceived notions of gender and modern tradition cloud their analysis of future finds.

"Similar associations of women buried with weapons have been dismissed, arguing that the armaments could have been heirlooms, carriers of symbolic meaning or grave goods reflecting the status and role of the family rather than the individual," the researchers write in the study, noting that remains from male individuals with such elaborate burials are often not questioned. "The results call for caution against generalizations regarding social orders in past societies," they write.

This Is Why Taking Fish Medicine Is Truly a Bad Idea

Smithsonian Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And even choosing correctly doesn’t guarantee success.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Map Shows the Full Extent of the Devastation Wrought by U-Boats in World War I

Smithsonian Magazine

It was a foggy morning as Captain William Turner navigated the RMS Lusitania through the final and most precarious leg of its voyage from New York City to Liverpool, England. On May 7, 1915, the British ocean liner had just entered the German-declared “unrestricted submarine warfare” zone, which deemed any ship, even civilian and merchant ones, fair game for attack while within its borders. Turner, however, seemed more worried about the foreboding weather conditions overhead than any covert underwater offensive.

The seasoned 58-year-old captain believed in the abilities of the Lusitania to outrun any submarine, technology that was still considered relatively primitive at the time. As historian Erik Larson writes in Dead Wake, Turner’s New York managers at Cunard, the company that owned the boat, even issued an official statement reassuring the public. “The truth is that the Lusitania is the safest boat on the sea. She is too fast for any submarine. No German war vessel can get her or near her.”

Unfortunately, this confidence was premature.

Later that May afternoon, the German submarine U 20 sent a single torpedo through the side of the Lusitania, triggering an explosion inside the ship, and sinking it within 18 minutes. Far from the only vessel victim to such attacks, the Lusitania was one of the most visible in the United States, namely because it held more than 1,900 civilians, and 128 of the nearly 1,200 who died onboard were American. In an attempt to justify the devastating attack, Germany later cited the 173 tons of war munitions the ship had also been carrying.


Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

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During World War I, Germany’s unprecedented use of Untersee-boots (U-boats for short) significantly changed the face of the conflict. The European naval power began operating U-boats in 1914, as an alternative to standard warships, which carried the not-insignificant downside of being visible to enemy vessels. The use of submarines led to a merciless form of warfare that increased the sinking of merchant and civilian ships such as the Lusitania.

When it came to capturing merchant ships during wartime, ships that traveled on the surface were required to adhere to specific rules set by international treaties. Any merchant ship that was stopped and discovered to be holding contraband cargo could be captured, boarded and escorted to a designated harbor. Enemy merchant ships could also be sunk, if the crew was allowed an opportunity to use lifeboats.

Since submarines didn’t contain enough people to comprise a boarding party, and revealing their presence would forfeit any advantage, the German Navy ultimately elected for its U-boats to attack merchant and civilian ships indiscriminately. On February 18, 1915, Germany offered “fair notice” to its rivals by declaring “unrestricted submarine warfare” in the waters surrounding the British Isles. This declaration left any ships traveling through the region subject to sudden attacks. As Larson writes in his book, Winston Churchill categorized submarine strikes and the morality behind them as “this strange form of warfare hitherto unknown to human experience.” Per Larson, Britain did not initially believe Germany would go so far as to attack civilian vessels.

The British began to take U-boats more seriously after a major stealth attack decimated three of its large cruisers, the HMS Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy in September 1914. By spring of the next year, Germany had roughly 35 functioning U-boats, many of which utilized torpedoes and had been highly effective in targeting ships passing through their vicinity. As of April 1915, German forces had sunk 39 ships and lost only three U-boats in the process. U-boats played a pivotal role in helping Germany react to the economic offensive that Britain had established with its blockade, by responding in kind and cutting off merchant business and trade.

Early on, many German officials began to believe U-boats would offer a swift and decisive victory to the war. What they didn’t count on was inadvertently inciting American wrath with the attack of a civilian ship.

Prior to the Lusitania's departure from New York, Germany had issued warnings including several ads that ran in major newspapers alerting passengers of the potential danger: “Vessels flying the flag of Great Britain or of any of her allies, are liable to destruction in the waters adjacent  to the British Isles…and do so at their own risk.”

However, many passengers adopted Turner’s skeptical attitude given the over 200 transatlantic trips the ship had previously made and its reputation as a speedy “Greyhound” of the sea.

The Lusitania attack put increased public pressure on the Wilson administration to reconsider United States involvement in World War I, leading up to an official declaration of war in 1917. Wilson and Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan were determined to remain neutral in a war they considered driven by European nationalism. Following the Lusitania tragedy, Wilson issued three strongly worded declarations to Germany regarding U-boat warfare, after which submarine attacks on merchants subsided significantly in the Atlantic and shifted to the Mediterranean to assist the Austrians and Turks.

This status was maintained for some time, until early 1917, when Germany decided U.S. involvement in the war was no longer imminent and greater force was necessary to beat back British advances. After the country resumed “unrestricted submarine warfare” once more, Wilson cut diplomatic ties. By the end of World War I, 344 U-boats had been commissioned, sinking more than 5,000 ships and resulting in the loss of 15,000 lives. The might of the U-boat, however, wasn't enough to hold back the combined strength of U.S. and British forces, including the ongoing blockade that ultimately strangled Germany's access to key resources like raw materials and food.

The U-boat data in the above map is courtesy of

This New Tower Gives Scientists a Bird's Eye View of the Amazon

Smithsonian Magazine

The Amazon rainforest is sometimes called the lungs of the planet thanks to the massive influence it has on the gases swirling through the atmosphere.  Now, reaching above the dense tangles of the rainforest towers a structure that will help scientists keep on eye on that vital, changing ecosystem.

The Amazon Tall Tower Observatory is 1,066 feet tall, beating the Eiffel Tower by 3 feet, reports Donna Bowater for The Independent, and is now the tallest structure in South America. However, the structures purpose isn’t to break records. Instead, it gives researchers the ability to see how the atmosphere above the rainforest and the photosynthesizing planets within respond to climate change, deforestation and severe weather.

Researchers at the Natinoal Institute for Amazonian Research (INPA) in Brazil and the Max Planck Institute in Germany teamed up to build the tower.

“For science, this is a very big and complex piece of work,” Antonio Manzi, a researcher at INPA told The Independent. Bowater writes:

Stefan Wolff, from the Max Planck Institute, said that in the past decade, the state of Amazonas had seen two severe floods and two severe droughts. There are currently 39 districts of Amazonas in a state of emergency because of annual floods caused by rises in river levels, affecting almost 320,000 people.

Meanwhile, Sao Paulo has been suffering a historic drought, which some have attributed to deforestation in the rainforest. “When the temperature increases, we have more energy in the atmosphere,” Mr Wolff said. “And when we have more energy in the atmosphere, a part of this has to be released. A good way of releasing this is a strong rain so there’s a great probability that some rains will be even heavier.”

Another tower, located in Siberia will offer similar data from the other side of the world. Together, the observatories will help build a global picture of climate change over the next 30 years, Manzi told Bowater.

For more perspective on what a towering structure like this looks like in the midst of the jungle, check out the photos Alan Taylor pulled together at The Atlantic.

This Paper Microscope Costs Just 97 Cents

Smithsonian Magazine

Microscopes have come a long way since eyeglass makers started using their lenses to look closer and closer at the world around them. But they’ve also gotten a lot more expensive. A modern scanning electron microscope could cost a lab $250,000. A nice desktop scope will set you back anywhere from $500 to $1,000—not a practical purchase, and sometimes out of the budget for clinics and research projects that could really use one.

What would an affordable microscope look like? Well, it'd be simple, and it'd be made out of cheap materials, but it would still be good enough to get the job done. It might look something like a microscope made out of paper, for less than a dollar.

Stanford scientists have developed what they call the Foldscope, a paper microscope that fits in your pocket and can be assembled in the field, in a lab, or anywhere you are. You can watch creator Manu Prakash talking about and assembling the scope in the video above. And it works too. According to Foldscope:

Foldscope is an origami-based print-and-fold optical microscope that can be assembled from a flat sheet of paper. Although it costs less than a dollar in parts, it can provide over 2,000X magnification with sub-micron resolution (800nm), weighs less than two nickels (8.8 g), is small enough to fit in a pocket (70 × 20 × 2 mm3), requires no external power, and can survive being dropped from a 3-story building or stepped on by a person. Its minimalistic, scalable design is inherently application-specific instead of general-purpose, gearing towards applications in global health, field based citizen science and K12-science education.

Foldscope is also currently looking for people to help them test out their origami contraption:

We will be choosing 10,000 people who would like to test the microscopes in a variety of settings and help us generate an open source biology/microscopy field manual written by people from all walks of life. 

From clinics in Nigeria to field sites in that Amazon, the scope could give people a cheaper, easier way to access the tiny worlds around them. 

This Park in Ecuador is One of the Most Biodiverse Places on Earth

Smithsonian Magazine

Deep in the heart of Ecuador's Amazon basin, in the shadows of the Andes and below the equator, lies what may be the most biologically diverse place on the planet. Yasuní National Park in eastern Ecuador is home to millions of species of plants, birds, insects and mammals. It teems with so much life it leaves people lost for words, says Dr. David Romo, co-director of Tiputini Biodiversity Station-Universidad San Francisco de Quito. “People get stuck on awesome. It is hard to use too many words other than awesome because, well, it is,” Romo says with a laugh.

Whether it’s humongous kapok trees, hairy tarantulas, squawking toucans, jumping spider monkeys or fierce jaguars, the diversity of organisms inhabiting Yasuní is astonishing. What is truly hard to fathom, though, is that little of the park has actually been studied. The Tiputini Biodiversity Station was established in 1994 and while scientists have since taken on multiple projects—for example, a recent project identifying a new species of tarantula with distinctive tiger-like marks—there is still much to explore. “If we compare the area of Yasuní to a pillow, [the amount of] information we have is equal to two needle heads on that pillow,” Romo says.

There is no definitive answer to the question of why or how Yasuní became so biologically diverse—the causes may include its high annual rainfall or low variation in temperatures. The park has also been called “an ecological bull’s-eye” due to the fact that it sits at the base of the Andes, along the Amazon and close to the equator—three distinct ecological systems converging to create a wholly unique area.

The park’s abundance of natural resources has turned Yasuní into a battleground of interests, however. While illegal hunting and logging have existed here for many years, the discovery of oil in 1937 underneath the fertile soil of the rainforest created a new threat.

“Oil exploitation” has been going on in parts of Yasuní since the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 2007 that Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa proposed a plan to protect the rainforest from drilling. The highly controversial Yasuní-ITT initiative called for $3.5 billion in international donations—about half of the revenue that Ecuador estimated they would have gotten by mining the 850 million barrels of oil under Yasuní. In return, oil drilling would be banned in the area. By August 2013, with only millions pledged and actual donations falling well short of the goal, the initiative was abandoned. After saying “the world has failed us,” Correa approved oil drilling in previously untouched parts of the park.

As this battle continues to rage, Romo knows that one of his jobs is to convince people of the utilitarian reasons for protecting the diversity of Yasuní. “The future of humans, the future of Earth, and the future of life as we know it will depend on how much humans master the understanding of genetic functioning and how we incorporate genetic information from our environment into our lives,” says Romo. He goes on to explain that local indigenous peoples —such as the Waorani, the Kichwa and other tribes living in voluntary isolation—have everyday uses for hundreds, if not thousands, of the species in Yasuní. “It is not just protecting biodiversity, it is also about protecting the people that evolved around that biodiversity for many years. It’s protecting that knowledge,” he says.

As awareness of the immense biodiversity of Yasuní has increased throughout world, it has also lead to an explosion of ecotourism. According to Romo and other sources, ecotourism can be a valuable conservation method, bringing much-needed dollars, awareness and jobs to the area. With many different travel lodges operating in the area under strict guidelines, there’s an opportunity for the adventure of a lifetime.

Even for Romo, the experience of being in the rainforest is still magical. “I have been going there since I’ve been nine years old. There isn’t a single time, to this day, when I make a trip, that I don’t end up seeing something for the first time ... it’s just amazing the things that are happening in Yasuní.”

This Photographer Set Out on a Quest to Rediscover the World's Lost Species of Frogs

Smithsonian Magazine

Four years ago, award-winning conservation photographer Robin Moore set out on a quest to rediscover and photograph some of the world's lost frogs and salamanders. He teamed up with 120 scientists in 21 countries and he records their adventures and misadventures in a new book, In Search of Lost Frogs. It includes more than 400 photos—some of the lost species and others of curious, less-elusive amphibian onlookers that the team encountered in their search. 

In order to qualify as "lost," species had to either be new to science or else have had no confirmed sightings in at least 15 years. Some, however, have been missing from the record for up to 160 years. 

Ultimately, Moore hopes his work brings more attention to the incredible biodiversity that's out there, much of which we're unaware of. "As conservationists we often get so caught up in communicating what it is that we are losing that we forget to instill a sense of hope," he said in an email. "We need to revel in the weird and the wonderful, the maligned and the forgotten, for our world is a richer more wondrous place for them."


In Search of Lost Frogs: The Quest to Find the World's Rarest Amphibians

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This Photographer Shoots Sharks to Save Them

Smithsonian Magazine

Michael Muller is a legend in Hollywood. His work is seen by millions of moviegoers each year, though most of them probably don’t know who he is. Muller is one of the preeminent movie-poster photographers in the business. This year alone, Muller’s artistry can be seen in the promotions for X-Men: Apocalypse, Captain America: Civil War and Zoolander 2. He was also responsible for the hazy Wes Wilson vibes of the poster for Inherent Vice and the action-packed Guardians of the Galaxy one, among dozens of other memorable advertisements. When he’s not photographing Hollywood’s biggest names, however, Muller finds himself drawn to the big predators of the oceans: sharks. His startling, intimate portraits of these beasts of the oceans have more to do with his action heroes than one might think.

“I want to light a great white like I light Iron Man,” Muller recently recalled thinking. Sharks have interested Muller since childhood, but it wasn’t until 2007 that it occurred to him to photograph them. He quickly found himself in awe of the animals and determined to use his talent to help spread a message of respect and conservation. “I’ve sold $14 billion in movie posters and Nike and Range Rover, all these huge companies. Maybe I can sell our planet,” he says he thought to himself. “Maybe I can sell these animals in a way people haven't seen before.”


Michael Muller: Sharks, Face-to-Face with the Ocean's Endangered Predator

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All he had to do first was grow comfortable swimming with sharks without a cage, get his studio team diving certified, and invent an entirely new system of underwater lighting. In a conversation with, Muller described the challenges, the successes, and the close calls of his passion project, Sharks, that is now available as a book and is on view at Taschen Gallery in Los Angeles.

Your book has this great anecdote about your first shark photograph. What happened?

It was roughly fifth grade, I was ten years old. We were living in Saudi Arabia because my father got transferred over there. His hobby was photography, so my first camera was a Minolta Weathermatic, a little, yellow waterproof camera. We got National Geographic at the time, and I stumbled across a photo of a shark, took a photo of that photo, and got the film processed.

All my buddies were at my house and I broke out the package of prints and said, "Check out this shark I shot in the red sea." They were all like, "No way! You saw a shark!" But the guilt started eating at me so I fessed up that I'd taken a photo of a magazine and we all got a laugh. But that definitely had an impact on me and stuck with me, the power of photography, to see the impression it had.

When did you begin taking your own photographs in earnest?

We came back to America in time for me to start the 7th grade. Shortly there after I started shooting snowboarding, which was at its inception. My best friend from high school got his college tuition from his dad and we made the first-ever snowboarding calendar. Throughout the year I was also shooting all the rock bands that came to town. I would call up Warner Bros. and say, “Hey I need to shoot U2 for the Such-and-Such Times.” I would get a photo pass and I'd go shoot all these bands and become friendly with them and meet the labels. And on a side note, I was doing triathlons. I was fifth in the world and I raced against Lance Armstrong. When it came time to graduate high school, I left the day I graduated and moved to San Diego, which was sort of the epicenter of triathlons, and after about six months I asked myself what do you want to do? Do you want to be a professional triathlete and swim, bike, and run for the next ten years or do you want to do photography?

I chose photography, thankfully. I moved to Boulder, Colorado, with my friend Justin Hostynek. We both got free snowboarding passes because we were photographers and did 120 days on the mountain. But then another friend of mine, a musician, was in Los Angeles and said, "Move to L.A.!" I taught Justin what I knew about photography and he stayed in Boulder, continuing to shoot snowboarding, and became one of the best snowboarding photographers and moviemakers in the business.

And I came to L.A. and started shooting actors and models and musicians. I sort of self-taught, and learned how to try out different films and find my style shooting models and actor friends of mine. It was definitely the right place at the right time. My first two non-snowboarding pictures were of Balthazar Getty and David Arquette. Leonardo DiCaprio and Drew Barrymore and all these young actors hadn’t gone on to become superstars yet, and this was before the Internet, before cell phones, before publicists. So I would go out and be like, "Let's go take pictures!" I started shooting these friends, Leo and different people, and then got an agent and started shooting for magazines and the rest is history.

Did you ever think about photographing sharks back then?

No, never. Jaws had a huge impact on me, scared the [expletive] out of me. Northern California, the Bay Area, it's a shark mecca. There are a lot of great whites there. You'd be surfing and the sharks would show up and eat a seal, and everyone would get out. Then two hours later, everyone would get back in and keep surfing. Sharks were on everyone's minds.

In the back of your mind as a surfer, you're always a little scared of sharks, but it never came into my mind to shoot them until 10 years ago. I was shooting all the Olympic swimmers for Speedo and I said, "I want to go shoot great whites. I want to go on a shark trip." My wife heard me, and for my birthday got me one of those cards, "Good for one shark trip." I called the next day and booked my travel. I was with ten people I didn’t know and I was the first in the water. I saw a great white coming out of the darkness and I locked eyes with it and I was like, "I see you, you see me, you're not this eating killing machine I thought you were." I was hooked from that moment on.

So on that trip you had this moment of realization and decided to start shooting sharks. How did you conceive of this project?

I came back from that trip and started thinking about lights. At the time, I was shooting for Speedo, I did that for eight or nine years straight, so I had tried every underwater lighting apparatus that was on the market, and I wanted to bring a studio underwater to shoot sharks, but I couldn’t. But I’m like, “I can't bring the shark to the studio, it'll be dead, so I’ve got to bring the studio to the shark.”

I went on a quest looking for lights, but they didn’t exist. There were 400-watt strobe lights, which everyone uses. And then there were big underwater HMI lights that require generators that James Cameron and those guys use for movies. But there was nothing for me. So I set out to invent them.

Then I met this guy Erik Hjermstad who fabricates housings for surf photographers and he was convinced he could make the lights. He brought in a guy from the Jet Propulsion Lab, and an old school dive photographer, and between the four of us we came up with the solutions needed to take hot studio lights under water. When I was heading to the Galapagos, for a work trip, the lights arrived the day before the shoot, and that was the trip that changed it all.

That’s almost the thing I'm most proud of. It’s funny, when I talk about it, people are like "You swim with sharks with no cage?" And I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but I invented a light that didn't exist!” I have patents on it. That was more gratifying because how many people invent a new lighting system in this day and age?

Does your family worry about you when you do this?

I think they did. But my wife came on a great white trip with me. She was crying the whole way, thinking it was the most irresponsible thing and we were going to die. We got out there and on the first or second dive we were hanging out of the cage and her perception completely changed. I thought she was going to jump on the back of a shark and swim away.

I have three daughters and they have watched me for ten years: I leave to go swim and shoot sharks and come back a week later with all my fingers and no shark bites, telling them how amazing the trip was and how the sharks are not there to attack daddy. Over the course of the years they learned what I didn’t at that age, they learned that sharks aren’t killing machines.

Do you work with shark specialists or other shark photographers or videographers?

I bring my assistants from my studio. I said, “Listen guys, I'm starting this project and either I’m going to use shark guys or you guys get certified to dive and come with me on this journey.” And they all jumped aboard. It's a real tight knit crew.

A couple of years ago I went to try to document a great white breaching at night. I was put in touch with this guy Morne [Hardenberg]. I shoot, he films. I came out to South Africa and we got skunked with the weather. It was rainy and stormy, and we were out at sea and we started talking.

About 10 years ago I was watching a shark documentary on television and I'm like, “Who is that guy filming with his back to the sharks, who is getting no glory. Who's the cameraman? That's the guy I think is cool.” So cut to me sitting on a boat in the pouring rain with Morne, and we start talking, and I'm like, “You're the guy! You're the one that was filming!” He's like "Yeah. And there's some guy in L.A. named White Mike that does –” And I'm like, "That's me! I'm White Mike!"

From that moment on it was like meeting my wife. We were instantaneously bonded. 10 months later I came back. We had five days and we got breaches every day, normal [day-time] breaches, three to four, maybe five a day, which is a lot. But when a great white breaches, there's no warning. You have to sit in the back of the boat with your camera up to your eye in rocky conditions, following this fake decoy seal that's going to the right and to the left, and then all the sudden out of no where, a shark goes “boom” and hits it. You literally have to just have your finger on the trigger and be ready.

We were going out at nighttime so we were leaving at 3 o’clock in the morning. When you're trying to track a black decoy seal in a black sea at nighttime with no light on it, the difficulty level goes up a hundred fold. We had spent four days, got nothing. We captured it on the last day.

What's the toughest part about photographing sharks? Their environment or their behavior?

The combo. You're dealing with wild animals and you're dealing with weather conditions that you can’t control. You're going out to places where sharks are in certain areas at certain times of the year, but there’s no guarantee. So you go there and you put the fish in the water and you wish for the best. I have been really blessed. If I didn’t get the shot I was after, I got something else. Mother Nature's got my back because of my purpose being out there.

I was sitting in the Galapagos on that boat and I visualized it. I saw a shark coming out of light and someone going, “Whoa look at that!” And then they turn the page, and you educate them and they go, "What? They're killing a hundred million sharks every year?” People have no idea. Then you point them in directions to help. That’s the goal: How can I use my gift as a photographer to get the message out there?

Have there been there any close calls with the sharks?

As far as close calls, probably the most dangerous thing was that happened or came close to happening was dive-related stuff like running out of air, almost being electrocuted, a light blowing up, that type of thing.

One close call was two or three years ago, we were swimming with great whites, and this 15-foot male shows up. We like to interact with what we call players; it's usually a girl and they're as interested in us as we are in them, and they’re very mellow. Sharks are just like people; they have personalities. And each species is different too so the sharks are different within their species.

With great whites, the boys are just like you would think young boys are: feisty. So this boy shows up, Morne did a dorsal ride, and the shark swam around us and did a couple of circles and a couple passes. On its last pass, it swam like it was going to go by me, but at the last minute, its head shot towards me, and I ducked down really quickly and hit it on its side gills, and it swam away immediately.

That's the other thing, no other species in the ocean, except for killer whales, swims towards a great white shark. Everything swims away from it. So they're smart enough to know that if all the sudden there's something swimming at it, it says, “Oh this is a predator,” and it swims away. A couple of years ago I’m out of the cage and I’ve got a great white coming at me. It’s going 35-40 miles an hour and it’s coming straight at me. That's how they get their prey. They hit it so hard that it knocks it out and then they go after it.

I've got this shark coming at me, full bore, I'm looking down at it, holding my camera, and off my right shoulder Morne comes off and goes straight at it, holding his camera, which has two lights on it, and goes straight at this 18-foot great white. All of the sudden, the shark does a 180 and turns off. I learned in that moment, that's how you handle a great white when it’s coming at you

Is there any one image that represents this project?

Out of every image, the message, the whole point, is in the image where you see my daughter in the cage and [a member of my team] face to face with a big great white.  That shot encompasses it all. Here's a big great white with a guy who has no protection, he's not even holding a camera, and my daughter's inside the cage looking towards them. That shot transcends and gets the message across. It shows how we don't need to be afraid of these animals the way we've been programmed to be. 

Three Deeds of Hercules

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Circular medallion showing Dejanire mounting Nessus. At center, sphere octagon showing Jupiter performing marriage of Hebe and Hercules in presence of gods. At bottom, circular medallion showing Hercules victorious over Queen of Amazons.

Three Short Answers to Why Alibaba's Worth So Much

Smithsonian Magazine

When Chinese company Alibaba opened up for an initial public offering today, it raised nearly $22 billion dollars. This would give the company a total estimated value of $160 billion, putting it in the top 40 companies worldwide, says the Wall Street Journal, and making Alibaba one of world's largest companies that you may have never heard of.  

Even if you were aware this company existed, perhaps your sense of what it actually does is something like “they do... internet stuff.” Part of the confusion around Alibaba comes from the fact that they seem to do everything. But why is it worth so much? Here are three short answers:

It's an online retailer that does all the bubbly tech stuff, too.

Alibaba is most often compared to Amazon, says Quartz, and its business history is largely that of an online retailer. It's business-to-consumer operations are bolstered by business-to-business and consumer-to-consumer outlets, too.

But Alibaba also has a hand in a bunch of the forefront web service industries. According to Quartz Alibaba owns or partially owns services that can be compared to: Dropbox, PayPal, Android, Twitter, Spotify, Hulu, Uber, Groupon and WhatsApp, among others. That's a lot of things all rolled into one corporate sphere. Most of the company's money comes from online shopping, but as we've seen in the U.S., you never quite know which new web service is going to be the next hit.

It's a tech company that actually makes money.

There are a lot of huge technology companies in the world, but a lot of them barely squeeze out a profit. The modus operandi in tech seems to be to grow, grow, grow, and then figure out how to make money. Consider Snapchat. According to Bloomberg, the mobile messaging app is worth as much as $10 billion, yet the company doesn't make any money. When Twitter had its initial public offering in 2013, it was actually losing money.

Alibaba, on the other hand, turns a steady profit, says Bloomberg, with margins even bigger than one of its American competitors, Amazon.

Its weird corporate structure means it's hard to pin down

As Fortune writes, the company's financial statements group all its work together into one segment and provide little information about the performance of its varied assets. This makes the company even more of a puzzle: "After all, how similar is online commerce to social media?" Fortune says. There's also less oversight of the company's than American investors might hope, the New York Times' DealBook reports:

Investors usually expect outside auditors to assess a company’s books. And American investors might take some comfort in the fact that the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board regulates audit firms, to help ensure they are doing their job. But the Chinese government does not allow the board to inspect Chinese audit firms. And the regulator has not inspected Alibaba’s auditor, PricewaterhouseCooper’s affiliate in Hong Kong.

“In many fundamental ways, investing in Alibaba is nothing like owning a slice of a typical American corporation. It requires far more trust,” says the New York Times.

Not that that's stopping investors from rushing to buy the company's stock. Whether Alibaba is actually worth buying in to, though, depends on what you want to get out of your stock purchase. Unlike some companies, Alibaba won't give shareholders a stake in guiding the direction of the company's business.

“Alibaba’s controlling group of shareholders are quite happy to raise capital from new investors and give them an economic interest in the business,” says Suzanne McGee for the Guardian. “But when it comes to giving them a say in how that business is run, it’s quite another matter.”

Yet a distorted share structure, where some people get power and others are just a source of money, is par for the course in the technology sector, says McGee. In this case, investors are confident enough that the company is important that they want to buy in, one way or another.

Three Stanford Graduates Are Matching Unused Prescriptions With Patients Who Need Them

Smithsonian Magazine

Adam Kircher was a healthcare consultant for McKinsey and Company. Kiah Williams was leading the Clinton Foundation's childhood obesity initiative, and George Wang, an expert in the nation’s drug donation laws, was working on several legislative initiatives around the country, when all three Stanford graduates quit their jobs in 2011 to found SIRUM.

The four-year-old startup, Supporting Initiatives to Redistribute Unused Medicine—or SIRUM, for short—connects pharmacies, drug manufacturers, nursing homes and other health facilities with excess, unexpired prescriptions to safety-net clinics that can dole out the medications to patients needing them for free. The company is providing this service in California, Oregon and Colorado and hopes to expand its operations into the 39 other states where drug donation is legal. The three founders share their story with

Kiah Williams, Adam Kircher and George Wang

Let's start with the problem. What problem are you trying to fix?

Williams: We are trying to solve two problems simultaneously.

Medication is second only to insurance premiums as America’s highest out-of-pocket healthcare cost. As a result, one in four working-age adults in the United States skip taking prescription medication due to cost. Society ends up paying a much higher price when patients skip medications and let diseases go untreated. Taxpayers ultimately foot costlier bills for worse conditions and pay for avoidable emergency room visits.

At the same time, as patients struggle to afford medications, America is destroying about $5 billion worth of unused, unexpired medicine each year. Nurses, doctors and pharmacists at healthcare institutions across the U.S. spend countless valuable hours popping out perfectly good pills and squeezing out creams and solutions into trash cans. These wasted medications get incinerated, dumped and flushed and ultimately end up in our air and water supplies, where they pose significant environmental and health hazards.

So, what exactly is SIRUM?

Wang: SIRUM is a non-profit designed to solve those two inefficiencies in our healthcare system by matching the surplus that exists with the need that persists. By saving medicine, and delivering it to where it can do the greatest good, SIRUM saves lives, reduces waste and cuts healthcare costs.

Using an online platform and the same modern logistics that make it possible for anyone anywhere in the U.S. to order an Amazon item today and receive it tomorrow, we connect the untapped surplus of drugs from manufacturers, pharmacies and health facilities with the needs of safety-net clinics.

You've called SIRUM the " of medicine." How does it work exactly?

Kircher: SIRUM’s online platform allows donor and recipient organizations to easily upload medicine surpluses or needs they have. Our system then connects compatible donor and recipient organizations and coordinates all donation logistics, including producing itemized drug manifests, and handling all shipping and tracking. Donations are made directly from donor to recipient, creating a fast, efficient donation process with low overhead costs and no middlemen. Once a recipient organization receives a donation, pharmacists or doctors verify the integrity of each donated medication and dispense them to patients in need.

Are there any legal or logistical limitations to your redistribution of medicines? What laws are in place to allow for these transfers?

Wang: Laws typically known as “Good Samaritan” laws exist in 42 states protecting drug donation or redistribution to at least some extent. SIRUM is the only organization in the nation that has created and leveraged the infrastructure needed to operate donation programs in-line with these laws and take full advantage of them.

How did you come up with this concept?

Kircher: I developed the idea for SIRUM in 2005 after witnessing the destruction caused by the 2004 Indonesian tsunami—and the way in which inefficient donation logistics prevented critical medicine from getting to the Indonesians who desperately needed them. An industrial engineering master’s degree student at Stanford at the time, I hypothesized that an online peer-to-peer, matchmaking service could reduce the fulfillment time of donated medications from 9 months to a matter of days. Aware of recent legislative changes that for the first time enabled and legally protected medicine donation in 40 states, George and Kiah took my idea out of academia and applied it to donors and clinics directly and domestically in the U.S.

How would you describe your success to date?

Williams: Since starting full-time at SIRUM in 2011, we have created from the ground up, in California, what is now the largest drug redistribution program in the country. Since inception, SIRUM has facilitated the redistribution of 1 million pills worth about $3 million wholesale directly to safety-net clinics to help serve about 20,000 patients in need. That amounts to two tons of medicine diverted away from our waste streams—and thousands of tons more waste avoided by forgoing the production of the 1 million pills these safety-net clinics would have otherwise had to purchase anew. SIRUM currently operates programs in California, Colorado and Oregon, with over 200 donor and recipient organizations participating.

As you see it, what is the potential impact SIRUM could have on healthcare?

Williams: Our ultimate vision is to get every one of those $5 billion worth of medications being wasted to a patient in need. Even if we just stopped the $700 million of drug waste happening in long-term care facilities alone, we estimate we could fill about 10 million prescriptions.

But it’s not just the cost of purchasing medications that we can affect. We could also reduce those secondary costs we incur when we let our most vulnerable go without the medications they need—the emergency room visits, the incarcerations, the lost productivity. And finally, we could save families from having to decide between other basic needs, like fresh food or clothing, and medications—they could have both.

How do you plan to scale your company? What's next?

Kircher: We are currently exploring pilot programs in a few of the other states with Good Samaritan laws while also growing our new programs in Colorado and Oregon, and our flagship program in California. Although we currently mostly work with long-term care facilities, like nursing homes, we are always seeking out donation partners in other parts of the pharmaceutical supply chain, like pharmacies, wholesalers and manufacturers.

Three Things to Know About the Coral Triangle, the Ocean's Biodiversity Hot Spot

Smithsonian Magazine

It’s off-fish-ul: Today is World Oceans Day. And tomorrow marks another briny milestone: Coral Triangle Day, a day dedicated to celebrating the biggest coral region in the ocean.

The Triangle is a billion-acre ocean region controlled by Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste. Unlike some other coral-rich areas like the Great Barrier Reef, the Coral Triangle isn't a household name. But it's importance to Southeast Asia and the world's oceans can't be downplayed: The region encompasses a full 30 percent of the world's coral and has the highest diversity of corals and fishes in the world. It's a place to know—especially if you're concerned about conservation and coastal communities, which many are.

Here are three need-to-know facts about the Coral Triangle:

It’s been called “the Amazon of the ocean”

Like the Amazon rainforest in comparison to other forest regions, the Coral Triangle is home to diversity found nowhere else in the reef system. More than 75 percent of the world’s coral species–over 600 species–live in the Triangle, and the area contains more than 30 percent of all the world’s coral reefs.

But the coral is only the start of the diversity in this living system. “The Coral Triangle has more coral reef fish diversity than anywhere else in the world,” writes the World Wildlife Federation. Of the 6,000 currently known species of reef fish, 37 percent of the world’s coral reef fish live in parts of the Triangle. Two hundred and thirty-five of those species are found nowhere else.

Six out of the world’s seven marine turtles live in regions of the Coral Triangle. So do aquatic mammals like blue whales, sperm whales and dolphins and endangered species like dugongs. The list is long. In fact, writes the WWF, the criteria used to define the Coral Triangle relied on high species diversity–higher than that of nearby reefs in Australia and Fiji.

It’s a stunning array of diversity that scientists from the Smithsonian Institution and elsewhere are working hard to understand–even as it might be fading away.

The green turtle, the leatherback, the hawksbill, the olive ridley, the loggerhead and the flatback species of turtle are all found in the Coral Triangle. (Jurgen Freund/World Wildlife Fund)

It may be where coral reefs began

“The theory is that this is where coral reefs started,” says naturalist Chris Cook in the National Geographic documentary below. Today, the Triangle is the center of diversity for ocean life, and research in reef sciences has suggested that it was the historic point of origin for many coral species as well as many of the species that live there.

Paleontologists are studying ocean in the Triangle to get a sense of what the underwater past looked like. “The ancient diversity of the Coral Triangle can tell us much about how life has adapted to changing conditions in the past, and how life may well adapt again in the future,” writes Britain’s National History Museum.

Among the abundant species Cook and his colleagues observed recently: the cuttlefish, a species which itself has been around for more than 500 million years. “It’s hard to explain. You have to see it,” Cook says. “It’s a mollusc. It’s related to a clam. And it just displays such intelligence.”

It’s in danger exactly because of its abundance

Like reefs everywhere else on the planet, the Triangle is in critical danger because of human-produced factors. It’s in danger from localized threats like cyanide fishing for rare aquarium fish that live in its waters. THis practice damages fish communities and the surrounding environment. But it’s also in danger because of huge threats, like anthropogenic climate change, which is warming the seas as they become more acidic, resulting in conditions where many species of coral can’t live.

On top of that, coral bleaching and white syndrome are immediate threats to many species of coral that dominate the Triangle–the Acropora corals.  “In the next century, maybe all coral reef researchers will be paleontologists,” one coral researcher said to the Natural History Museum.

But there’s hope that parts of the Coral Triangle may be refuges for marine life once again. “High levels of biodiversity, coupled with fast rates of growth and recovery, put many Coral Triangle ecosystems in a favorable position to survive climate change,” writes the World Wildlife Fund.

Three Things to Know About the Fires Blazing Across the Amazon Rainforest

Smithsonian Magazine

Since January, a staggering 74,155 fires have broken out across Brazil, the country’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reported Wednesday. This figure—an 85 percent uptick from the same point in 2018—includes more than 9,000 blazes spotted within the past week and represents the highest rate recorded since documentation began in 2013.

Crucially, environmentalists point out, the vast majority of the infernos are not wildfires, but rather intentional land clearing attempts undertaken by farmers and loggers emboldened by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s pro-business policies. Regardless of origin, the blazes, now large enough to be seen from space, pose a significant threat to the Amazon, which is popularly known as the “lungs” of the planet due to its capacity for storing carbon dioxide and producing oxygen. As Terrence McCoy writes for the Washington Post, the rainforest is “one of the world’s greatest defenses against climate change.”

Why fires are raging on such a large scale

According to McCoy, infernos have razed 7,192 square miles of Brazil’s Amazon region this year to date. Comparatively, Amazonian fires caused roughly half this damage—cutting through 3,168 square miles—over the same period in 2017. Andrew Freedman reports for the Washington Post that the number of fires recorded in 2019 greatly surpasses the 67,790 seen at this point in 2016, when a strong El Niño event created severe drought conditions in the area.

“This is without any question one of only two times that there have been fires like this [in the Amazon],” ecologist Thomas Lovejoy tells National Geographic’s Sarah Gibbens. “There’s no question that it’s a consequence of the recent uptick in deforestation.”

The Amazonian fires are so large that they can be seen from space (NASA Earth Observatory)

Speaking with Reuters’ Lisandra Paraguassu, INPE researcher Alberto Setzer explains that the blazes cannot be attributed to the dry season or natural phenomena alone. “The dry season creates ... favorable conditions for the use and spread of fire, but starting a fire is the work of humans, either deliberately or by accident,” he adds. (Christian Poirier, program director of the non-profit organization Amazon Watch, tells CNN’s Jessie Yeung that the humid rainforest is generally less likely to catch on fire than, say, the dry bushlands of California and Australia.)

Since taking office in October 2018, Bolsonaro has emphasized economic development over environmental concerns—a policy pattern that has led to an uptick in agriculture, mining and deforestation across the Amazon. According to the Post’s Freedman, farmers use forest fires, often illegally, to clear land for cattle ranching and growing soybeans, as well as paving the way for future development. A report published by the local Folha do Progresso newspaper earlier this month suggested that farmers in the state of Para were planning to hold a “day of fire” August 10. As the individuals behind the initiative explained, they hoped to “show the president that we want to work” to advance regional production.

In total, Setzer tells the Wall Street Journal’s Samantha Pearson and Luciana Magalhaes, he estimates that 99 percent of the fires are the result of human activity.

Who is affected and how parties are responding

Per Reuters’ Paraguassu, the current surge of fires has enveloped the northern state of Roraima in black smoke and led states such as Amazonas, Acre, Rondônia, Mato Grosso and Para to declare emergencies or remain on environmental alert. On Monday, a mixture of clouds, smoke and a cold front actually plunged the city of São Paulo into total darkness during the middle of the day. As local resident Gianvitor Dias says to BBC News’ Kris Bramwell, “It was as if the day had turned into night. Everyone here commented, because even on rainy days it doesn’t usually get that dark.” Although many have connected the unsettling incident with the recent wave of fires, the New York Times’ Manuela Andreoni and Christine Hauser note that researchers are still working to determine whether the two are directly connected.

According to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, the Amazonian fires have generated a discernible spike in carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide emissions, threatening human health and exacerbating the effects of global warming. In the long run, deforestation-driven fire could prove devastating to the carbon-absorbing rainforest.

Among the groups most likely to be affected by the fires are the Amazon’s indigenous populations. Per Alexis Carey of Australia’s, up to one million indegenous individuals constituting some 500 tribes live in the region and are at risk of losing their homes to infernos or encroaching cattle ranchers. In a video posted on Twitter by the activist Sunrise Movement, a Pataxó woman decries the illegal land clearing, saying, “They are killing our rivers, our sources of life, and now they have set our reserve on fire.”

Facing heavy criticism from those who say his economic policies are driving the crisis, Bolsonaro opted to accuse nongovernmental organizations of setting the fires. “It could be, it could, I’m not saying it is, a criminal action by these N.G.O. people to call attention against me, against the Brazilian government,” he said, as quoted by the Times. “This is the war we face.”

According to the Post’s McCoy, Bolsonaro further stated—with no supporting evidence—that “The fire was started, it seemed, in strategic locations. There are images of the entire Amazon. How can that be? Everything indicates that people went there to film and then to set fires. That is my feeling.”

Per Reuters, Bolsonaro also attributed the fires to the time of year, saying that “queimada,” or the annual clearing of land by burning, is currently underway. “I used to be called Captain Chainsaw,” the president reportedly said. “Now I am Nero, setting the Amazon aflame. But it is the season of the queimada.”

Bolsonaro’s comments arrive just weeks after he fired INPE’s director, Ricardo Galvão, over data the agency published regarding rising deforestation. Dismissing the figures as “lies” and positing that the INPE was working “at the service of some N.G.O.,” the president replaced Galvão with a military official. The fired scientist, meanwhile, criticized Bolsonaro’s “vile, cowardly attitude” in an interview with the Post’s McCoy, adding, “This was a defense of the dignity of the Brazilian science, not only for Brazilian scientists, but for all scientists. Our data should never be curbed by political interests.”

Many environmental activists have spoken out against Bolsonaro’s claims, describing them as deflection from the pressing environmental concerns at hand. In a statement, Amazon Watch director Poirier argued, “This devastation is directly related to President Bolsonaro's anti-environmental rhetoric, which erroneously frames forest protections and human rights as impediments to Brazil's economic growth.” Speaking with the Guardian’s Jonathan Watts, Danicley Aguiar of Greenpeace Brazil echoed this message, saying, “Those who destroy the Amazon and let deforestation continue unabated are encouraged by the Bolsonaro government’s actions and policies.”

What will happen next?

NASA’s Earth Observatory explains that the Amazon’s dry season—aggravated by farmers clearing out land—typically begins in July or August, peaks in early September, and mostly stops by November.

“I’m concerned,” Ane Alencar, science director of Brazil’s Amazon Environmental Research Institute, tells the Times’ Andreoni and Hauser. “We are at the beginning of the fire season. This could still get much worse.”

Expanding on this line of thought in an interview with Mongabay’s Ignacio Amigo, Alencar said that rainfall will not resume until late September, or even later in the more northern regions of the Amazon. “It could mean that there is going to be a lot more fire ahead,” she notes.

According to National Geographic’s Gibbens, Amazon deforestation occurs in a cylical pattern: Forest loss, spurred by economic activities including harvesting timber, planting soy and building cattle pastures, leads to a decline in rainfall, which in turn engenders more deforestation. Eventually, experts say, this cycle could transform the lush rainforest into a dry, savannah-like ecosystem.

Deborah Lawrence, an environmental scientist at the University of Virginia, tells Time’s Mahita Gajanan that clearing forests shifts their dynamics. “There’s no trees to pump moisture into the atmosphere,” she explains. “Rain fall is going to either settle into the soil and stay there, or, if there’s a lot, run off into rivers and end up far away.”

Per the Post’s McCoy, fire and subsequent deforestation could make it nearly impossible to limit global warming to levels called for by the Paris Agreement. Although the Amazon currently accounts for roughly a quarter of the 2.4 billion metric tons of carbon absorbed by all global forests, changing weather patterns, deforestation, tree mortality and other factors are hampering its ability to serve as an essential carbon sink.

If deforestation continues at the rate seen today, climate scientist Carlos Nobre tells Gajanan, more than half of the Amazon will have a climate similar to a savannah within the next 25 to 30 years. If deforestation increases, as indicated by the ongoing surge of forest fires, this scenario could become reality in just 15 to 20 years.

“This is very sad,” Nobre says. “We usually would see this surge of fire in very, very exceptionally dry years. The fact that this record-breaking figure comes out in a relatively un-dry dry season shows that deforestation is increasing.”

Tibouchina adenophora Cogn.

NMNH - Botany Dept.

Tibouchina adenophora Cogn.

NMNH - Botany Dept.

Tibouchina aspera Aubl.

NMNH - Botany Dept.
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