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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.


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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

John Smith Coined the Term New England on This 1616 Map

Smithsonian Magazine

On March 3, 1614, Captain John Smith set sail for Monhegan Island, a rocky outcrop ten miles off the coast of Maine. The spot was popular for fishing, and the funders of Smith’s voyage expected fresh whale on his return.

When Smith and the crew of his two whaling ships landed in what was then called Northern Virginia that April, however, they found rorqual and finback whales to be painfully difficult to catch. To make the trip worthwhile, most of the men fished and traded furs, while Smith and eight other shipmates explored the shore.

“I have a gut feeling that what Smith really wanted to do was the surveying anyway,” says Peter Firstbrook. “He wasn’t a fisherman. That was just an excuse to get him over there.”

Smith quickly discerned that the half-dozen maps of the region he had in his possession were useless, saying that they were “so unlike each to other; and most so differing from any true proportion, or resemblance of the Countrey, as they did mee no more good, then so much waste paper, though they cost me more.”

He and his foolhardy band of sailors, nonetheless, covered 350 miles, from the Bay of Fundy down to Cape Cod, in an open boat probably no more than 30 feet long. And, with a humble set of surveying tools—a crude compass, astrolabe, sextant, a lead line to measure depth, a quill pen and paper—they gathered notes for their very own map of what Smith named “New England.” The official map was published alongside Smith’s book, A Description of New England, in 1616.

“I have actually positioned modern maps against the 1616 map. When you get into detail, it varies—sometimes the islands aren’t in quite the right place or maybe they are bigger or smaller than they are. But, overall, within a 10 mile margin of error, it is remarkably accurate,” says Firstbrook, a former BBC filmmaker and a biographer of Smith. “It really was a fine achievement and much better than anything else that existed at the time.”

In his new book, A Man Most Driven: Captain John Smith, Pocahontas and the Founding of America, Firstbrook argues that historians have largely underestimated Smith’s contribution to New England. While scholars focus on his saving Jamestown in its first two harsh winters and being saved by Pocahontas, they perhaps haven’t given him the credit he deserves for passionately promoting the settlement of the northeast. After establishing and leading the Virginia Colony from 1607 to 1609, Smith returned to London, where he gathered notes from his exploration of the Chesapeake Bay and published his 1612 map of Virginia. He yearned for another adventure in America and finally returned in 1614.

When Smith was mapping New England, the English, French, Spanish and Dutch had settled in North America. Each of these European powers could have expanded, ultimately making the continent a conglomerate of similarly sized colonies. But, by the 1630s, after Plymouth and the Massachusetts Bay Colony were established, the English dominated the East Coast—in large part, Firstbrook claims, because of Smith’s map, book and his ardent endorsement of New England back in Britain.

“Were it not for his authentic representation of what the region was like, I don’t think it would be anywhere near as popular,” says Firstbrook. “He was the most important person in terms of making North America part of the English speaking world.”


A Man Most Driven: Captain John Smith, Pocahontas and the Founding of America

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Wary of Smith’s reputed temper, the Pilgrims passed him up in 1620 and instead recruited Myles Standish as sailing master for their journey to a new life. But in a nod to Smith’s charting skills, the religious separatists did purchase his map and notes of New England. It is hard to know if they actually had the map with them on their voyage. “They could well have left it behind and regretted it,” says Firstbrook. They were, after all, headed to the Hudson River, but storms altered their course, causing them to land 200 miles to the north in Plymouth.

Many believe that Plymouth was named after the Pilgrims’ port of departure in Plymouth, England, but Smith was actually the first to call the site “New Plimouth” on his map four years earlier. In fact, in A Description of New England, Smith astutely noted that Plymouth was “an excellent good harbor, good land; and now want of any thing, but industrious people.”

Who Really Composed NBC's Olympic Theme? Not Who You Think

Smithsonian Magazine

To most Americans, the sonic signature of the Olympic Games can be summed up in seven notes in E-flat major, a soaring BUM—BUM—ba-ba-ba-BAH-BAH that fades in and out of the competitions. The fanfare of brass and percussion, titled "The Bugler's Dream," has come to represent the Olympics almost as much as a torch or five-rings—but the piece wasn't written for the games, and it wasn't composed by John Williams, the creative genius behind the familiar themes to Star Wars, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark and many more memorable movie scores.

For all its focus on athletic competition and international unity, music factors into the Olympics in a complicated, and at times overlooked, way. Little is known about the role of music in the original Greek Olympics, though Olympic historian and professor of music Bill Guegold notes that it probably played a least some part, perhaps in marches or other festivities. In modern times, however, music has been an important part of the Olympic games from their first revival in 1896.

"In the late 1800s, when Pierre de Coubertin decided to resurrect the Olympics, so to speak, he felt that the arts should be part of it, not just music but all the arts," Guegold says. "At the first Olympics, in 1896, they had a request for someone to write an Olympic hymn." The man chosen was the young Greek composer Spyros Samaras, whose compisition, dubbed "Olympic Hymn" was played at the opening ceremonies. In 1957, International Olympic Committee named it the official Olympic anthem. Since the 1960s, it has been played at every Olympic game as the Olympic flag is raised or lowered—which means that anyone who has watched at least one Olympic ceremony has heard the hymn multiple times. But "Olympic Hymn" isn't heavily associated with the Games here in the U.S.—largely because Samaras' piece lacked the endorsement of American broadcast stations.

Unlike Samaras, Leo Arnaud wasn't composing for the Olympics when he sat down in 1958 to pen "The Charge Suite," from which "The Bugler's Dream" was born. Ten years later, however, Arnaud's fanfare fused with Olympic history when ABC used it for their 1968 coverage of the Winter Olympics.

"That was everyone in the United States' first Olympic theme, because it was used so much in the sporting events and associated with the ABC television coverage," Guegold explains. 

First Olympic theme, perhaps, but not the last. In 1984, the United States Olympic Committee comissioned John Williams to compose a fanfare specifically for the Los Angeles games. Dubbed "Olympic Fanfare and Theme," it was performed live at the games.

The performance of Williams' fanfare at the 1984 Summer Games introduced another theme to Olympic viewers—but even though it was composed by the already-famous Williams, the fanfare didn't immediately topple "Bugler's Dream" as the most recognized Olympic theme, in large part because ABC, and later NBC, continued to use Arnaud's fanfare over Williams' in their broadcasts. According to journalist Erik Malinowski, ABC used Arnaud's theme over Williams' for their broadcast of the 1988 Winter Olympics, perhaps worried that Williams' fanfare would be too closely associated with the Summer Games. When NBC acquired the rights to broadcast the 1992 Olympics, they also acquired the rights to "Bugler's Dream," though they played it sparingly throughout their coverage of the Games held that year.

Ask a group of Americans who composed the Olympic theme music, and a majority might tell you it was John Williams—and while they wouldn't necessarily be wrong, but they would be ignoring Arnaud's contribution to the history. Here's why they make that mistake: in 1996, for the celebration of the centennial of the modern Olympic games, NBC re-released Williams' "Olympic Theme and Fanfare," but replaced his opening with Arnaud's "Bugler's Dream." This amalgamation became the most widely recognized iteration of the Olympic theme; try searching for Arnaud's "Bugler's Dream" on YouTube, and most results cut to Williams' fanfare around the 48-second mark. 

Why combine the two pieces? Guegold believes it was done to make NBC's use of the two pieces easier and more seamless—by arranging the two together, Arnaud and Williams' pieces are put in the same key, instrumentation and recording ambiance, allowing the station to use either piece at any point in their broadcast—or to capitalize on each piece's distinct popularity and use them together. 

Of course, any Arnaud/Williams controversy is a uniquely American feature of the Olympic Games. Outside of the United States (and beyond the airwaves of NBC), viewers have a different musical association with the Olympics.

"The most common piece that’s used around the world is [the theme to the movie] "Chariots of Fire" by Vangelis," Guegold says. Whatever the music, however, audiences can expect it to be a kind of fanfare. "The the brass, percussion, marching band sort of big piece, something that is kind of grand, seems to fit the venue. It seems to fit the visual spectacle of the Olympics very well." 


The Official History of the Olympic Games and the IOC: Athens to London 1894-2012

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Exploring New York City’s Abandoned Island, Where Nature Has Taken Over

Smithsonian Magazine

In the heart of New York City lies an abandoned island. Although it is clearly visible to commuters on the Bronx’s I-278 or passengers flying into La Guardia airport, few people are even aware of its existence. If anything, they have only heard that the infamous Typhoid Mary spent her final years confined to a mysterious island, situated somewhere within view of the city skyline. But even that sometimes seems the stuff of rumor.

Until 1885, the 20-acre spot of land—called North Brother Island—was uninhabited, just as it is today. That year saw the construction of the Riverside Hospital, a facility designed to quarantine smallpox patients. Workers and patients traveled there by ferry from 138th Street in the Bronx (for many of the latter, it was a one-way trip), and the facility eventually expanded to serve as a quarantine center for people suffering from a variety of communicable diseases. By the 1930s, however, other hospitals had sprouted up in New York, and public health advances lessened the need to quarantine large numbers of individuals. In the 1940s, North Brother Island was transformed into a housing center for war veterans and their families. But by 1951, most of them—fed up with the need to take a ferry to and from home—had chosen to live elsewhere. For the last decade of its brief period of human habitation, the island became a drug rehabilitation center for heroin addicts.

Mere decades ago, North Brother Island was a well-manicured urban development like any other. Judging from aerial photos taken in the 1950s, the wildest things there were a few shade trees. In those years, North Brother Island was covered by ordinary roads, lawns and buildings, including the towering Tuberculosis Pavilion built in the Art Moderne style.

Eventually, however, the city decided it was impractical to continue operations there. The official word was that it was just too expensive, and plenty of cheaper real estate was available on the mainland. When the last inhabitants (drug patients, doctors and staff) pulled out in 1963, civilization’s tidy grasp on that speck of land began coming undone.

Nature quickly got to work. Sprouting trees broke through sidewalks; thick sheets of vines tugged at building facades and spilled forth from windows like leaking entrails; and piles of detritus turned parking lots into forest floors. The East River insistently lapped at the island’s fringes, eventually wearing down barriers and swallowing a road that once circled its outer edge, leaving only a manhole cover and a bit of brick where veterans and nurses once strolled.

The island has remained free from human influence in part because the city forbids any visitors from going there, citing safety concerns. Now, however, New Yorkers and out-of-towners alike have the opportunity to explore North Brother Island. Not by boat and foot, that is, but through a meticulous photographic study of the place, published this month by photographer Christopher Payne

Like many New Yorkers, for most of his life Payne was unaware of North Brother Island. He first heard of it in 2004, while he was working on a project about shuttered mental hospitals. North Brother Island seemed like a natural progression in his artistic exploration of abandonment and decay. In 2008, Payne finally secured permission from the Parks and Recreation Department to visit and photograph the island. From that first trip, he was hooked. “It was an incredible feeling,” he says. “You’re seeing the city, you’re hearing it, and yet you’re completely alone in this space.”

For the next five years, Payne paid the island some 30 visits, ferried out by a friend with a boat, and often joined by city workers. He photographed it in every season, every slant of light and every angle he could find. “I think it’s great that there’s a place out there that’s not developed by the city—one spot that’s not overtaken by humanity and is just sort of left to be as it is,” he says, adding that the city recently declared North Brother Island a protected nature area.

Few relics of the former residents exist, but Payne did manage to uncover some ghosts, including a 1930 English grammar book; graffiti from various hospital residents; a 1961 Bronx phone book; and an X-ray from the Tuberculosis Pavilion. Mostly, though, traces of the individuals who once lived in the dorms, doctors’ mansions and medical quarters have been absorbed into the landscape—including those of the island’s most famous resident, Mary Mallon. “There really isn’t much left of the Typhoid Mary phase,” Payne says.

In some cases, the carpet of vegetation has grown so thick that the buildings hiding underneath are completed obscured from view, especially in summer. “There was one time when I actually got stuck and just couldn’t go any further without a machete or something,” Payne says. “In September, it’s like a jungle.”

Eventually, Payne came to see the island as a Petri dish of what would happen to New York (or to any place) if humans were no longer around—a poignant thought in light of growing evidence that many of the world’s coastal cities are likely doomed to abandonment within the next century or so.

“Most people view ruins as if they were looking into the past, but these buildings show what New York could be years from now,” Payne says. “I see these photographs like windows into the future.” 

“If we all left,” he says, “the entire city would look like North Brother Island in 50 years.”

North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City is available new on Amazon for $28.93. For those based in New York City, author Christopher Payne will be hosting a lecture and book signing on Friday, May 16, at 6:30 pm at the General Society of Mechanical Tradesmen of New York. Rumor has it, Payne notes, that a former North Brother Island resident or two might turn out for the event. 

Peru and Puerto Rico: Two Rhythms, One Voice

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Marinera dancers perform on La Plaza at the 2015 Festival. Photo by Brian Barger, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
Marinera dancers on La Plaza at the 2015 Festival. Photo by Brian Barger, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

There I was, standing in front of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival main stage, with a circling sway of skirts and handkerchiefs. I was speechless. It was my second day in Washington, D.C., but for a fleeting instant I felt at home. Percussion, guitars, and the sensuality of the Peruvian festejo transported me to Puerto Rico, conjuring the sounds of bomba y plena. Both genres were born from the integration of music and stories reflecting the daily realities of the Afro and criollo (creole) communities. For a moment, the Afro-Caribbean traditions were reflected in this Peruvian reality. It was as if Afro-Latino voices from both sides of the continent talked to me at the same time, with a shared history but a different voice and rhythm. Their message: to be heard, respected, and defended.

“Aclotile” by Marcial Reyes y sus Peleneros de Bayamón
From the album Puerto Rico in Washington (Folkways Records, 1971)

Voices like those of Afro-Latinos—strong but in danger of being rendered invisible—need public spaces, not only to be represented but to flourish and be passed onto new generations. It’s precisely in these spaces where they redefine themselves, where they resume the community consciousness in a process of reaffirming who they are and forging their identity. These voices have been and will continue telling their stories, but how they are translated to reality is a multi-layered, ever-changing experience.

Part of this experience came into dialogue at the Perú: Pachamama program. The African, Spanish, and Indigenous joys, sufferings, flavors, and cadences shaped the identities portrayed during the Festival. Artists as varied as Susana Baca and the Afro-Peruvian band Tutuma passed through the same stage. While Susana has become the strongest voice of Afro-descendants from Peru internationally, Tutuma represents Afro-Peruvian traditions on a local level, especially from El Carmen District, Chincha. One is closer to jazz and the other to traditional Afro-Peruvian styles. The Festival served as a facilitator for the international and local spectrum of Peru’s national identity to be in direct dialogue, starting from the joint effort of increasing the representation of Afro-descendant minorities.

Tutuma on La Plaza. Photo by Brian Barger, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
Tutuma on La Plaza. Photo by Brian Barger, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

In this representation of minorities, I establish bridges of comparison between my country and Peru, both with a history of invisibility of Afro-descendant minorities that dates back to colonial times. In Puerto Rico’s case, invisibility comes in the form of commercialization and trivialization of the Afro heritage. Aspects like language, dance, art, and gastronomy are used more as a tourist attraction than as a cultural affirmation. As a response, strong movements have formed dedicated to the rescue and acknowledgement of African roots and traditions. They are starting to occupy and take back non-conventional public spaces, filling them with Afro-Puerto Rican traditions and art, educating about their heritage, and involving other communities in the performances and pedagogic process.

Minority groups in Peru are making the same kinds of efforts, through arts initiatives and other projects. Miguel Ballumbrosio, member of Tutuma, is creating a community center to gather and celebrate Afro-Peruvian traditions, providing a space of expression for the rich Afro culture his father and siblings helped establish as a significant part of the Peruvian national culture. This is just one of the many strategies to fight against marginalization of minorities and advocate for adequate representation in public spaces and the national narrative.

The struggle to bring minority voices to the national level becomes more difficult and urgent when you add the issues of race and national identity. What does it mean to be Peruvian? Who is Peruvian?

Radio Ucamara director Leonardo Tello (right) with Ikuari School instructor José Manuel Huaymacari. Photo by Vivianne Peckham, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives
Radio Ucamara director Leonardo Tello (right) with Ikuari School instructor José Manuel Huaymacari. Photo by Vivianne Peckham, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

At the Festival, Leonardo Tello from Radio Ucamara said that being from the Peruvian Amazon means “to be the river, the jungle, the people, the spirits.” Then he asked composer and writer Roberto Arguedas what it means to be black.

“Instead of speaking of race, I’ll respond as a human being. I am free, and I don’t like races or differences or nothing like that. I fight for freedom, for freedom of thought, to have the freedom to be able to talk to others with respect. I live to be happy and give happiness to others. I don’t want to use cliché stereotypes about me because that has been done before and I don’t like it. Peru is one nation. We are Peruvians—you and me are Peruvians. We are not races or forms. I love the place I live in and the place you live in. We are a cultural diversity where we are all the same. I’m not original from Peru. I was born in Peru, but we arrived later. You were here before, you welcomed us, and I love my country for that. That’s why I don’t want any color or racial division in my country.”

These “cliché stereotypes” Roberto mentions could and should be fought through the use of public spaces for the education on the invisibility threats that minorities face. In this sense, space becomes crucial in the defense of identity, be it through art, performance, education, community gatherings, or expressing one’s understanding of race. Invisibility is a constant force that should be a call to action, to stand up, embrace, affirm, and defend our diverse heritage.

As Miguel Ballumbrosio says, “We can’t just sit around with our arms crossed waiting for something to happen, because our crossed arms will become rotten.”

José Ralat-Reyes is a Smithsonian Latino Center Fellow at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. He’s an archaeologist and heritage manager graduate from Autonomous University of Madrid, where he focused his research into the representation of the Afro-Puerto Rican heritage in museum spaces.

A Recap of Our Five Favorite New Species of 2013

Smithsonian Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humpback dolphins, the species that jumped from two to four 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tapirus kabomani, the mammal the locals knew all about

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

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

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

Smithsonian Magazine

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


Coming into the Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Courtesy of John McPhee)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get Lost in the Landscape that Inspired William Faulkner’s Greatest Novels

Smithsonian Magazine

When it comes to creating a sense of place through prose, William Faulkner has long been considered a master. Famous for penning such classics as The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, Absalom, Absalom!and a bookshelf’s worth of other novels, the late author didn’t have to look far for inspiration, often turning to Rowan Oak, his estate in Oxford, Mississippi, as his muse.

Now, a new book illustrates the Nobel Prize winner’s marriage of prose and place, exploring his more than 30-acre sanctuary, canopied in ancient cedar trees, influenced his writing. Written by Oxford-based botanist and photographer, Ed Croom, and published by the University Press of Mississippi, The Land of Rowan Oak: An Exploration of Faulkner’s Natural World brings his words to life in a series of captioned color photographs that encapsulate what Faulkner once called his “little postage stamp of soil.”

With camera in hand, Croom has been photographing Rowan Oak for more than a decade, often visiting the property at the first signs of daylight, when the landscape is still shrouded in mist and before the crowds begin to trickle in for various tours of the property. He estimates that he’s easily taken more than 10,000 photos over the years (additional photos are on his website and Instagram pages)—though he admits that initially, he never intended to publish them in book form. Instead, he used those peaceful moments of solitude for personal meditation and to study the natural world.

“After ten years, I figured I had enough photos to show—from the heart—the beauty, mystery and sanctuary of this place,” Croom tells “As a botanist and someone who is interested in conserving nature, I thought the best way for me to do so would be to start taking pictures. Visitors to Rowan Oak often ignore the landscape and just want to see Faulkner’s typewriter; however, the historic landscape that nurtured Faulkner is the same today [as it was when he lived here].”

As an example, Croom points to the gravel driveway leading up to the more than 170-year-old clapboard home, which Faulkner purchased in 1930. The road is lined with the same Eastern Redcedar trees that had greeted Faulkner and his wife Estelle when they lived there. (Croom estimates that the trees were planted in the mid-1800s, long before Faulkner was even born.) It’s also eerily similar to a passage in Faulkner’s novel Sartoris, in which he wrote, “From the gate the cinder-packed drive rose in a grave curve between cedars.”

House and Cedar-Lined Walk in Mist, October 2003 (Ed Croom)

“[Faulkner] often wouldn’t tell you exactly where [the setting] was, or would say it’s in another part of [Lafayette County, where Oxford is located],” he says. “But [from my photos], you can see that the scenes and plants [he describes in his books are all right there]. I think Faulkner was writing about what he knew.”

Of course, Croom has done very much the same with the release of his own book, which started with his observations of the natural world on display at Rowan Oak. It was through his interest in botany that he would eventually become acquainted with the author.


The Land of Rowan Oak: An Exploration of Faulkner's Natural World

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“I didn’t grow up reading Faulkner,” he says. “I learned about him through Rowan Oak. I started wondering what this place meant to him, so I began reading his short stories, then figuring out where these images and places he wrote about really were. I realized that they were all right here. So I came to him backwards.”

In addition to linking Faulkner’s words to place, Croom’s book describes in detail the various flora found on the property, and contains a map that pinpoints where each photo was taken.

“Every photo contains a caption with both the common and scientific name of each plant,” he says. “I used the same spelling as Faulkner used in his writing, so you can easily locate it [in his books]. During an interview held at the University of Virginia in 1958, he admitted that he didn’t do any research. Instead he was much like a folklorist, absorbing everything. He would come home and have this total sanctuary, and he wrote it all out to show you this world he had absorbed.”

Today, visitors to Rowan Oak can continue to walk in the fabled footsteps of this celebrated author, and experience firsthand the lush landscape that inspired him.

Is America exceptional? A business history curator's perspective

National Museum of American History

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

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

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

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

Photo of napkin with handwritten text on it

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

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

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

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

Photograph of the exhibition's Global Era section

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

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

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


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14 Fun Facts About Manatees

Smithsonian Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Make Science Fiction Become Fact, in Three Steps

Smithsonian Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Stunning Black-and-White Photos of the Nazca Lines

Smithsonian Magazine

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble Celebrates Our Differences Through Song

Smithsonian Magazine

Sing Me Home, the latest album produced by Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, is a veritable smorgasbord of sounds – a feast for the ears. The record, released in April, runs an unprecedented cultural gamut, drawing from a host of ethnic and regional traditions to create novel, multivalent melodies. On the album, reimagined American standards, including “St. James Infirmary Blues,” complement West African tribal music, and ethereal Chinese song is juxtaposed with frenetic Irish fiddling.

This profound diversity is characteristic not only of the album, but also of those responsible for its creation, artists who take great pride in their ability to find unity among their mutual differences, and to humbly open themselves up to cultures outside their own.

Indeed, despite the disparate composition of the Silk Road Ensemble, which Yo-Yo Ma founded in 1998 as a way to connect talented musicians from all walks of life, one finds in their work overwhelming kindred warmth, a sense of collaborative oneness.

As virtuoso violinist Johnny Gandelsman, who co-produced Sing Me Home, puts it, “We feel that we are a family, and when we get together, it’s like a great family reunion.”

Nowhere is this familial bond more evident than in this newest album; each member of the Ensemble shares aspects of their personal, ancestral histories, integrating these defining traits with those of their fellow musicians to create a vibrant and beautiful whole.

“There’s so much joy,” Gandelsman says. “And through joy, there’s a lot of respect for individual experience, individual stories.” He emphasizes the role of learning in the group’s creative process: “learning [what’s important] to individuals in the group… strengthens us as a collective.”

The best illustration of this jocund atmosphere is perhaps the Ensemble’s music video for “Heart and Soul,” premiering exclusively on, a classic American pop tune that the group reimagined for a 21st-century audience, and elected to use as the closing track on “Sing Me Home.”

Image by Todd Rosenberg Photography. Johnny Gandelsman (violin), Colin Jacobsen (violin), and Nicholas Cords (viola) performing with fellow Silk Road Ensemble musicians (original image)

Image by Photograph by Max Whittaker. The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma performing at the Mondavi Center in California (original image)

Image by Photograph by Taeuck Kang. The Silk Road Ensemble With Yo-Yo Ma (original image)

Image by Photograph by Khalid Al Busaidi, Royal Opera House Muscat, Oman. The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma performing in Oman in 2014 (original image)

Throughout the video, musicians and vocalists alike sport broad, sincere smiles, and sway breezily to the beat. As the two lead singers, guest performers Lisa Fischer and Gregory Porter, deliver their dulcet, romantic harmonies, they peer deeply into each other’s eyes. Core members of the ensemble are encouraged to invite their colleagues in their respective genres.

As Yo-Yo Ma, the visionary cellist at the heart of the ensemble, says via e-mail, “Part of what I love about this album is the way that, in a number of cases, collaborations are extensions of existing relationships.” Witness Martin Hayes, an Irish musician recruited by Silk Road veterans of the string quartet Brooklyn Rider to play on “O’Neill’s Cavalry March.” “They brought their beloved friend into our family,” Ma says.

Given the album’s lengthy list of contributors, what is perhaps most impressive about its production is the fact that each individual involved was encouraged at all stages of the process to voice suggestions and concerns. “The ensemble operates basically on democratic principles,” Johnny Gandelsman says.  “We take every opinion as very valuable.”

This notion of inclusivity extends beyond the group’s internal structure; a key facet of the Silk Road Ensemble’s mission is national and global outreach. The group is currently gearing up for a transcontinental summer tour of the United States, and is looking into the possibility of a Middle East engagement in the coming year. “There’s so much fear out there in the world,” Gandelsman says, “and we can address that through music.”

Yo-Yo Ma’s deepest hope is that the Silk Road Ensemble will inspire the creation of other, similar groups, each wholeheartedly committed to the celebration of world music. Eventually, far down the road, Ma’s original collective might gracefully fade away, no longer needed. That day – the day of the Silk Road Ensemble’s dissolution – will be, for its members, one of triumph.

In the meantime, the ensemble will continue to produce vital, compelling music, and to remind listeners everywhere that the beauty of human experience is shared among all of us, and is contributed to, uniquely, by each of us.

In the words of Yo-Yo Ma, speaking on the ensemble’s latest record, “We always focus on what unites rather than what divides, and I think that’s a lot of what you hear.”


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How Solar-Powered Recycled Smartphones Could Save the Rainforest

Smithsonian Magazine

With short, incessant upgrade cycles and a reliance on rare earth elements and low-wage labor, smartphones often get pegged as a problem, both for the environment, and for the people in developing nations where their components are mined and manufactured.

But Silicon Valley physicist and engineer Topher White, founder of the non-profit Rainforest Connection, thinks our discarded tech can be repurposed to do some serious good.

The idea in a nutshell is to place solar-powered phones high up in the tree canopy where they’re tough to spot, but they can listen in for the sounds of chainsaws (and eventually vehicles and poachers). When they detect the sounds of illegal activity, the hidden phones use existing GSM cellphone networks to alert authorities of the location in real time, so that the authorities can deploy to the area and stop the loggers before they fell too many trees. According to the group, each phone can protect up to one square mile of forest.

The technology arguably comes at a crucial time for the future of many forest conservation efforts, with recent studies showing places like Borneo losing nearly a third of its rainforests in the last 40 years. While the problems of illegal logging have been well known for years, existing techniques for stopping deforestation are either too slow (satellite imagery is mostly used to survey damage after the fact), or too expensive (aircraft can fly over the forests, but can’t cover huge areas without great expense).

Rainforest Connection has already tested the technology in a limited run in Sumatra in 2013, where White says their devices detected loggers within two weeks. The group, along with local conservationists, was able to deploy to the area and interrupt the logging.

Before White and Rainforest Connection got to that first milestone, they faced several challenges. The core idea of the setup is simple enough. Attach a phone high up in a tree where it can get the best cell reception. Then add another phone in another tree a certain distance away (rougly one every square mile), and continue the process until the network of smartphones covers the area. When a phone detects the sound of a chansaw, it sends an alert that includes its location, so authorities can respond quickly.

White says cell networks are good enough in most areas for the phones to remain connected. Many developing nations have embraced mobile phone technology because it's less expensive to set up and maintain than traditional landlines.

Providing enough power proved to be an issue, however. The tree canopy, with its bursts of intense light and shade, is far from the ideal place to harness solar energy. So White had to do some testing to find out what would work.

“The petal [design] that you see [in our images] is able to maximize the amount of power that comes out of these rays of light and sunflecks that are able to make it through the canopy,” says White. “But the flip side is that they’re much less efficient than a normal solar panel, so we have to have more of them.”

Dealing with the cellphone payment plans of other countries was also a problem White says he ran into in Sumatra. “The biggest adaptation that I had to make in the field,” says White, “was teaching the phones to top each other up and deal with the quirks of the network out there in Indonesia versus here in the United States.”

Next Up: Trials in Africa and South America

Now, Rainforest Connection, partnered with the Zoological Society of London and fresh off a successful Kickstarter campaign which raised $167,000, is ready to test its technology on a broader scale in Africa and the Amazon over the next year.

The group will be working with local law enforcement and conservation groups to teach them how to set up, install and manage the ad hoc network of smartphone-outfitted trees. Eventual autonomy from Rainforest Connection will be an important step. Many technologies intended for remote areas fail because there’s no one around to repair or replace them when something goes wrong. White says that it’s unclear how long the devices will keep functioning in the treetops, but he suspects most will run for a year or two at least. And it’s doubtful the supply of discarded phones will run out anytime soon.

Smartphones are designed to withstand the wear and tear that would come with White's vision.

The Kickstarter funding will pay in part for refined specialized housings for the phones and solar panels, which should make them less expensive, easier to deploy and better able to stand up to the elements. The group also plans to create an app that will let anyone in the world listen to the sounds of the rainforest at any time, and receive alerts from the trees in real time.

White says the initial idea wasn’t to use smartphones at all, but to create customized hardware that would interact with cellphone networks. But smartphones, which are loaded with sensors, already tested to stand up to wear and tear, and built around an established development platform, proved too appealing to ignore—especially since millions of still-functioning models are discarded every year.

Beyond the hardware: Engagement and eventual monetization

The notion of setting up a surveillance network over vast swaths of pristine forest sounds a bit sinister. But, the idea of using old smartphones is perhaps as much a clever public relations move as it is a prudent use of discarded technology. White says an app that lets users in other countries listen in on the forest and take part in the monitoring is also essential to get people to reengage in rainforest issues.

“The messaging hasn’t changed in 20 years,” says White. “Because 20 years ago it was an incredibly urgent, destructive, terrible issue. Here we are 20 years later, and it’s perhaps worse. But it’s still just as distant and just as abstract. There’s been a general decline in people’s feelings of urgency.”

As the project moves forward, Rainforest Connection hopes to expand the scope of the project so that the phones can detect things like vehicle use in off-peak hours, and the sounds of potential poachers. In Africa, they also want to see if the technology can be used to track elephants through the forest.

But in the long run, White thinks the real solution is not in stopping illegal activities, but in showing locals that they can make money from the rainforest in non-destructive ways. And on that front, White’s ideas sound straight out of Silicon Valley.

“Impressions can be monetizable. People care about the rainforest, but there’s not a lot of engaging content coming out of it,” says White. “If you’re able to make people pay attention and integrate [the rainforest] into their everyday lives, the fact that people pay attention can be used to generate revenue for the people.”

Can information and interest alone keep an economy growing and deter a handful of people from exploiting the environment in destructive ways? That question is just as pertinent to the asphalt jungles of New York and San Francisco as it is to the remote rainforests of Africa, Asia and South America.

WALL-E Goes to Work for Cheaper Solar Power

Smithsonian Magazine

A shiny silver robot zips along a track at a county jail in Dublin, California, and stops beside a set of solar panels propped up by a giant arm. The robot latches onto the base of the arm and turns it slowly, tilting the face of the panels like flowers to the sun. By angling the solar panels just so, the robot helps the panels catch more rays and produce more energy.

 This robot, about the size of a microwave oven, is the brainchild of QBotix, a three-year-old company based in Silicon Valley that unveiled its creation last year. While tilting solar panels to track the sun's movement isn't a new concept, QBotix has come up with a novel approach that makes use of advances in robotics technology made over the past two decades. If the idea proves successful, it could lead to cheaper renewable energy and more efficient use of land for big solar installations.

 Such innovations are important if solar electricity is to achieve costs comparable to power generated by fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas. And in a time when many solar plants are being built or planned for remote desert regions, where sunlight and broad swaths of undeveloped land are abundant, robotics offer a way to minimize the need for on-site workers to clean, repair and monitor solar panels and tracking equipment.

 Construction of a large-scale solar power plant today typically requires armies of workers to dig ditches, pour concrete, remove trees, weld beams, and distribute materials, among other tasks. Once a project gets up and running, plant operators usually employ people to clean the panels using a hose and giant squeegee, or heavy machinery equipped with a mechanical arm for spraying and wiping. Other workers are needed to repair or replace problematic panels and parts, and solar plant operators sometimes hire pilots to fly over their arrays and snap infrared images to spot cracks, short-circuits, and other malfunctions that cause a panel to heat up. Tilting solar panels to track the sun is accomplished, if at all, by means of hundreds of costly motors and tons of steel.

 QBotix's design, deployed at five pilot sites in California, Arizona and Japan, sends robots zipping along an elevated monorail constructed alongside rows of solar panels. Each battery-powered bot is programmed to adjust more than one thousand panels in a carefully choreographed sequence, tilting each panel in its assigned flock by 10 degrees every 40 minutes to keep pace with the sun’s arc. When its battery charge runs low, the robot maneuvers itself to a charging point atop the monorail, and plugs in.

"You want to produce as much as energy from the solar panels as possible because that energy is your revenue," says Wasiq Bokhari, founder and CEO of QBotix. Utilities are often willing to pay a premium for renewable power delivered during times of high demand, such as the mid-afternoon, in large part because of ambitious renewable energy mandates by state or local governments. These efforts to reduce carbon emissions have fueled a boom in solar plant development, particularly in western states such as California, where utilities must increase the amount of renewable electricity in their supplies to 33 percent by 2020

 In a conventional solar farm, panels in the Northern Hemisphere are permanently positioned to face south (in the Southern Angle, north-facing panels capture more sun). But with this design, known as “fixed-tilt,” panels face the sun directly for only a few hours each day.

To squeeze more electricity out of each panel, large solar project developers in recent years have begun adding a system of motors, sensors, and other gear to the steel structure that props up each solar panel. This system, called a tracker, helps to increase energy output by automatically rotating panels to keep them oriented to the sun’s rays.

Trackers, however, are expensive. Each tracker has its own motor and gear to rotate a set of several panels. They function best on a level surface, so uneven ground must be graded. This adds cost and can impact the environment in a way that makes it more difficult to secure permits. And only the priciest systems tilt panels on two axes—east-west and north-south—enabling maximum sun exposure during all seasons. (Lower-cost versions tilt panels only east-west.) As a result, conventional tracking systems force project owners to choose between investing extra time and money to generate additional energy, or opting for a less costly system that will generate less revenue.

Robots can offer a happy medium, providing the lower price of a single-axis tracker system with the higher energy output of a premium dual-axis system. “Traditional dual-axis trackers require more motors and steel,” says Randy Wu, general manager of development at Trina Solar, a solar panel maker and project developer that plans to offer QBotix’s technology as an option in the plants it builds for investors. “QBotix’s approach is very different,” he adds, because one QBotix robot can do the work of hundreds of dual-axis trackers. The design eliminates the need to install a field of motors and the elevated rail makes grading unnecessary. “They control the environment by putting robotics on a rail," says Geoffrey Kinsey, director of photovoltaic technologies at the Boston-based Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems.

Using robots to tilt panels, Bokhari says, "is like adding a turbo charger to your engine." And they can perform other jobs, too. In the world of solar power plant construction and operation, which still relies largely on manual labor, robotics is an emerging trend. Some companies, such as Alion Energy and Greenbotics, have engineered robots to wipe away the sticky, sun-blocking dust that tends to accumulate on solar panels. Another design from Alion installs solar panels and mounting equipment.

Historically, engineering robots to replace humans has proven a daunting task for some industries because robots only perform a narrow task and can't adapt to a changing environment or get trained for new tasks, says Kinsey. Until recently, that has made robots a more expensive and riskier investment than hiring humans to do jobs such as construction and electrical repairs. It also makes designing robots for outdoor use particularly challenging.

The emergence of more powerful processors, sensors and sophisticated software have helped to shrink the size of industrial robots and make them more mobile and smarter at performing more complex tasks, Kinsey says. He points to Boston-based Rethink Robotics, for example, which last year unveiled a robot capable of learning to perform different tasks on a factory assembly line and reacting to changes such as misplaced parts. Another company, called Kiva Systems (acquired by Amazon in 2012), is supplying fleets of robots to warehouses around the country. Controlled by a central computer, the mobile orange robots buzz around warehouse floors and scan barcodes on the ground to retrieve items off the shelves for shipping. And at Tesla Motors’ factory in California, robots on the company’s highly automated assembly line can switch between multiple functions. "They are like Edward Scissorhands," Kinsey says.

Designs are improving. QBotix’s robots are equipped with GPS, sensors, and wireless communication equipment to record and report their work. And the company unveiled a streamlined version of its robots-on-rails system this summer, showcasing a smaller, lighter, and faster bot capable of managing 340 kilowatts of solar panels every 40 minutes. That’s an array large enough to cover the rooftops of 85 typical single-family homes in California. "It's an aerodynamic design for ruggedness and speed—as if you marry a Hummer with a Lamborghini," says Bokhari.

QBotix says its technology could produce up to 15 percent more electricity than a project using single-axis trackers—without additional cost. "QBotix is a leap ahead because it's brought the cost way way down,” says Wu. “It's very appealing,"

The company has plans to develop its technology beyond tracker robots. Its team of 15 engineers is working on a new robot that would clean solar panels and detect cracks or other problems with solar panels and equipment, Bokhari says. The idea is to use the same rail system but different robots to do the work, or to set up a system just for the cleaning and inspection robots.

Although using robots to adjust solar panels is a sound proposition, Kinsey says, the day when robots will overtake humans in doing most of the building and running of solar power plants remains far off. Utilities looking to purchase electricity from solar developers want to lock in power prices for 20 years or more, so prospective customers want assurances that new technology from new companies like QBotix and its peers will be reliable over the long term. With each round of the track, the robots are gathering data to make their case.

When the Unabomber Was Arrested, One of the Longest Manhunts in FBI History Was Finally Over

Smithsonian Magazine

The Unabomber cut a swath both deep and narrow through the country’s psyche. His attacks were frightening and unpredictable, but, in the later stages of his 17-year terror campaign, he emerged from the shadows as a vengeful philosopher bent on changing history. He was a riveting, infuriating figure. I wanted to write about him, but not from the police point of view and not speculatively, when nobody yet knew who he was. He finally came into focus, for me, at his trial. I covered it, and in the end surprised myself by thinking that he had been deprived of his day in court.

Before he became the Unabomber, Theodore J. Kaczynski was a gifted mathematician. Raised in and around Chicago, he went to Harvard on scholarship at age 16 and, in 1967, became the youngest assistant professor of mathematics ever at the University of California, Berkeley. But mathematics was unimportant to him, he later said. It was just a game he was good at. Indeed, he fiercely resented his mother’s insistence that he was a genius. In 1969, Kaczynski abruptly fled academia.

“Ever since my early teens I had dreamed of escaping from civilization,” he later told an interviewer. He built a bare-bones cabin in the woods near Lincoln, Montana, where he lived without electricity or indoor plumbing. He hunted and gardened and kept to himself, eating squirrels, rabbits, parsnips, berries. In 1978, he began sending parcel bombs to scientists, businessmen and others whose work enraged him.

Law enforcement dubbed him the “Unabomber” because his early targets were universities and airlines. Sixteen bomb attacks, killing three people and injuring 23, were ultimately attributed to him. Tracking him was one of the longest and most expensive manhunts in FBI history. Kaczyn-ski’s bombs were handcrafted, impossible to trace, and became more sophisticated and deadly with time.

Percy Wood, the president of United Airlines, was an early victim. He suffered burns and cuts over much of his body. Janet Smith, a secretary at Vanderbilt University, sustained shrapnel wounds and burns to her face. Hugh Scrutton, a computer store owner in Sacramento, California, was the first target to die from his wounds. That was in 1985. Thomas Mosser, an advertising executive, was murdered in his home in North Caldwell, New Jersey. Gilbert Murray, a timber industry lobbyist, was killed in Sacramento. David Gelernter, a computer science professor at Yale, lost the use of his right hand, suffered severe burns and shrapnel wounds, and had his right eye damaged.

In 1993, Kaczynski began writing to newspapers, taunting his victims, and threatening new targets. He wrote in the name of “an anarchist group calling ourselves FC.” Remarkably, using an offer to “desist from terrorism,” he prevailed upon the Washington Post and the New York Times to publish, in 1995, a 35,000-word essay called “Industrial Society and Its Future.”

“The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race,” it began. The “manifesto,” as it became known, was a dark, densely argued treatise, in 232 numbered paragraphs, on the malignant role of technology in modern society. Individual freedom and autonomy were being eliminated by centralized systems of control. These systems needed to be destroyed, “wild nature” restored. The Freedom Club (FC) targeted “the technophiles [who] are taking us all on an utterly reckless ride into the unknown.” For those who opposed this future, the manifesto was a call to arms.

Its ideas were taken seriously in some quarters. James Q. Wilson, a conservative social scientist, wrote, “If it is the work of a madman, then the writings of many political philosophers—Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Tom Paine, Karl Marx—are scarcely more sane.” A book version of the essay sold several thousand copies.

But publication of the manifesto led, as the FBI had hoped it would, to Kaczynski’s capture. His brother, David, a youth counselor living near Albany, New York, read it and recognized the language, the arguments. David loved his brother, though they were estranged. After months of anguishing, he shared his suspicions with the authorities. Federal agents obtained a search warrant and, on April 3, 1996, arrested Ted in the doorway of his cabin. (The handcuffs they used now reside in the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. The United States Postal Service played a significant role in investigating Kaczynski's series of mail bombs.)

Inside the cabin, they found bomb-making materials, a live bomb ready for mailing, the original manifesto manuscript, and 40,000 pages of journals recording Kaczynski’s daily life, his bombing campaign, his anger. The Freedom Club, it emerged, had a membership of one.

The cabin in Montana where Kaczynski lived at the time of his arrest. (FBI)

Kaczynski was put on trial in federal court in Sacramento in late 1997. The government sought the death penalty, breaking an agreement made with David Kaczynski to forgo it. David and their mother, Wanda, came to court each day, but Ted, sitting a few feet away, never acknowledged them. His demeanor in court was polite, attentive, calm. The shaggy hermit whose picture had been broadcast around the world now looked and acted like a mild professor. I sent him interview requests through an Oregon anarchist who visited him in jail. I never got a reply.

A jury was selected, but the trial proper never started, for Kaczynski was locked in a procedural battle with his lawyers, the prosecutors and, ultimately, the judge about his defense.

His court-appointed lawyers believed his best chance of avoiding the death penalty was to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. Being labeled mentally ill was Kaczynski’s worst fear. He tried to fire his lawyers in favor of a private attorney willing to let him risk execution to present his case—a political argument, relying on the manifesto, explaining why he thought his actions were necessary. The judge denied the change of counsel. A psychiatric evaluation ordered by the court diagnosed Kaczynski as paranoid schizophrenic. Kaczynski asked to represent himself. The judge denied this request, too. Checkmated, Kaczynski pleaded guilty rather than hear himself represented at trial as insane.

He had been denied his day in court, I thought, because nobody in power wanted to hear his political message. His lawyers, all talented idealists, just wanted to save his life. The prosecutors had begun to doubt that they could achieve their goal—a death sentence—at trial. The judge did not want to see his courtroom become Kaczynski’s soapbox. By pathologizing the defendant’s radical dissent, each faction avoided the outcome it feared. On May 4, 1998, Kaczynski received four life sentences.

A mugshot of Theodore J. Kaczynski, the “Unabomber,” after his capture on April 3, 1996. (FBI)

I started hearing from him soon after my report on the trial appeared in the New Yorker. Seeing his return address, by then a federal prison, in my mailbox gave me a start. It seemed he was considering an appeal of his case, and he thought some of my reporting might help. I didn’t think so, but he kept writing. His letters got increasingly cranky, and the idea of his using the manifesto in a blazingly political trial seemed to fade. I lost interest, and the last thing I got from Kaczynski was a parcel. My wife and I blanched at the sight of it. I took it out to the stairwell to open it. There was no danger, of course, so what was I thinking—to save the kitchen cupboards, just in case? The parcel contained, as I recall, a stack of court documents.

Kaczynski, now 75, lives in a “supermax” prison in Florence, Colorado. He remains a prolific writer, corresponding in longhand with hundreds of people, and producing essays and books. Technological Slavery, a collection, was published in 2010. Among the customer reviews on Amazon, a majority have given it five stars. In a report for the 50th reunion of his class at Harvard, Kaczynski gave his occupation as “prisoner.” Under “awards,” he listed his life sentences.

The Beautiful Life Hacks in Hong Kong's Back Alleys

Smithsonian Magazine

In many cities, the term “back alley” conjures unsavory images—drug deals, muggings, rat infestations. But in Hong Kong, with its high population density and low crime rate, working class citizens use back alleys as a sort of extended living space.

Michael Wolf, a German-born photojournalist turned fine art photographer who has lived in Hong Kong for two decades, has been chronicling these back alleys for years. Now, his new book, Informal Solutions, provides a record of just how innovative Hong Kongers can be when it comes to urban space.


Informal Solutions by Michael Wolf

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I meet Wolf at his studio in Chai Wan, an industrial area on the eastern edge of Hong Kong Island, its warehouses and factory buildings slowly becoming populated by artists and designers. Though Wolf originally settled here to use Hong Kong as a base for assignments in mainland China, he's come to be fascinated with the city's aesthetics and culture of density—tower blocks so massive and symmetrical they look computer-generated, plants growing from cracks in the cement, one-room apartments packed to the gills with all their residents' earthly possessions. Hanging on the studio wall are various photos from Informal Solutions, detail shots of creative alley use in action.  

“You have so little private space here you tend to make public space private by repurposing it,” Wolf says. “[Back alleys are] a unique aspect of the Hong Kong identity.”

In this city of 7 million, the average person has just 160 square feet to his or herself, compared to 832 in the United States. The space shortage is driven by exorbitant housing prices. Hong Kong was recently named the most expensive housing market in the world for the sixth year in a row, with the average apartment costing 19 times the annual median income. With young people unable to afford to rent or buy their own places, many are forced to live with their parents or other family members well into their 20s and 30s. Some of the city’s poorest residents live in so-called “cage homes,” subdivided apartments barely large enough for a bed and a hot plate.

In such conditions, space-starved citizens look outward for breathing room and solitude. Hong Kong’s vast network of narrow alleys, a vestige of 19th century Southern Chinese urban design, provide just that. Workers use the alleys for smoke breaks, stashing plastic stools behind air conditioning units and hiding cigarette packs in grates. Residents use their alleys as extra closet space, balancing pairs of shoes on pipes or hanging laundry from coat hangers suspended from window grates. People also beautify these often grimly gray and tiled alleys with flowerpots, turning unloved public space into makeshift gardens.

But these back alleys are at risk, Wolf says. The government is trying to clear some alleys to create better pedestrian flow in some of the city’s most dense districts. A recent HK $1 million (about US $128,000) pilot project in Hong Kong's Kowloon area involved hiring artists to paint alley walls to make them more attractive as thoroughfares. Though the murals will make the alleys more appealing to some, Wolf worries they're losing their character and utility for the city's working class.

“They [the government] call it face lifting. I call it sterilizing,” Wolf says. “Once they’re cleaned up, they become boring.” 

What Are the 1000 Foods to Eat Before You Die?

Smithsonian Magazine

When was the last time you sat down to a meal of hamam meshwi, a.k.a grilled pigeon, which is most likely found on a menu in Egypt? Or traveled to Oslo, Norway, for a breakfast of freshly caught shrimp? Chances are probably never. However, thanks to former New York Times restaurant critic, Smithsonian contributor, and author Mimi Sheraton's latest book, 1,000 Foods to Eat Before You Die, your foodie life list is about to get a whole lot longer.

Inspired by Patricia Schultz's best-selling title, 1,000 Places to See Before You Die (which is also distributed by Workman Publishing), Sheraton has rounded up 1,000 must-try dishes, restaurants, markets, cultural feasts, and even some relatively universal foods (such as bananas, olive oil, and whipped cream) that transcend regional categorization. Curated from cuisines around the globe, Sheraton has put them together in one large volume, along with details on historic and cultural context, tips on how to prepare or where to try a particular dish, and even several dozen recipes. It's a project that's been 10 years in the making—one that's as much a wonderful display of Sheraton's vast food knowledge (she's been writing about food for 60 years) as it is an ode to the world's sheer culinary diversity.


1,000 Foods To Eat Before You Die: A Food Lover's Life List

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Fitting the world's incredible eats into a mere 1,000 entries, however, is no small task. "I actually started with about 1800 entries that I had to weed down," says Sheraton, "All the while, other foods and dishes continued presenting themselves." One of her main goals was showing an equal respect for the dishes of say, Australia, as she did for a culinary powerhouse like China. "Between the United States, France and Italy I could have easily filled the book," she says, "but I wanted to give an overall representation of what the world eats. There are interesting things to try before you die in all parts of the world, so chicken pot pie and strawberry shortcake fell by the wayside to make room for something like East Africa's Zanzibar duck," a braised, clove-scented duck seasoned with lemon.

Nearly the same number of pages as it has entries, 1,000 Foods highlights everything from Chinese hie xian jiang (known in the U.S. as hoisin sauce) to the oysters of Locmariaquer, France. Staples of the dinner table such as pasta run alongside more specific items like the "golden-edged" crepes at Manhattan patisserie Lady M, while other entries focus on iconic restaurants such as Nariobi, Kenya’s Carnivore, known for its unusual variety of meats (things like camel hump, ox heart, or ostrich meatballs) or on food-inspired cinema such as the 1989 dark comedy, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover. There's no particular rhyme or reason as to why a food hall may be one entry and Belgium's Callebaut chocolate another, other than simply—it fits. "While there are exactly 1,000 entries, there are actually many more foods, because I found the only way to include something that didn't require a lot of text for itself, but was important in a larger context, was to group it," says Shearton. Some entries group foods together, such as Sheraton's write up on "Spanish Cheeses" and "Rijsttafel," an array of Indonesian rice table feasts that came about during the age of Dutch colonialism.

Sheraton organized 1,000 Foods according to the geography of flavor and culinary style rather than strict geographical borders, so candied apples is listed under the regional heading "American and Canadian" while leberwurst is found in the section titled "German, Austrian, and Swiss." For the most part, traditional dishes that may be popular internationally are still listed according to their region of origin. For example a food such as pizza, despite being an American staple, still falls under "Italy." Likewise, the American Chinese dish chow mein is found in the book's "Chinese" chapter, although it's much more popular in the States. This can be a bit confusing at first, but once you get the hang of becomes easy to navigate. Along with a general index, there's also a special index providing easy access to items such as holiday food, world-class markets, and recipes, the latter of which there are about 70 scattered throughout. But perhaps the book's most helpful perk is that each listing contains information highlighting ways you can actually experience the food, place, etc., yourself. "Everything in the book has to be available to readers some how," she says, "whether you go to a restaurant or buy it at a store or online or even make it yourself, everything there is triable."

Since the connection between food and travel is undeniable, 1,000 Foods is as much an exploration of the world and its people as it is a culinary journey. "For me, food helps define a place," says Sheraton. "Not only does it put me closer in touch with the people who are preparing the food but I also experience the way it is served, the different flavors, etc. I really think that in a world that's becoming more homogenous if you can find traditional foods in their country of origin—like Ukrainian borsht in Kiev, or hairy crab in Shanghai—it's as important as looking at a cathedral or some statue."

In truth, says Sheraton, there's a lot other than food you can find out about from food. Turns out 1,000 Foods is the perfect tool. Despite its tagline, Sheraton's book is much more than a food lover's life list. "There are so many ways to use 1,000 Foods," she says, "whether you're planning to visit a place and want to look up dishes to try while there, or if you're so dedicated you want to find a very unusual dish to try, so you start from the entry and then travel to the place it suggests. As a writer I hope that most people will simply find it to be a good read: dip in and out and maybe strike up an interest that will lead them even further into a certain cuisine or country or customs."

Sheraton herself learned new facts and discovered new foods while writing the book, which is what she says kept her going in a lot of ways. Based on her research she predicts that there are a few North African cuisines—namely Senegalese and Ethiopian—that will have much wider influence as Western palates expand. She also sees a trend toward more western Mediterranean cuisine, which simply put utilizes more spices, while its eastern counterpart focuses on herbs.

While Sheraton has tasted the overall majority of entries listed, there are still a few that for one reason or another have eluded her (but that according to her viable, trusted sources cannot be left out). "As I say in the book's intro, my reach has always exceeded my grasp. But that's okay," she says, "because it gives me something to look forward to."

Six Things You May Not Have Known About Fiddler on the Roof

Smithsonian Magazine

No one would’ve guessed that a musical, based on a series of Yiddish short stories would become so popular. Yet today, everyone knows “If I Were a Rich Man,” and “Sunrise, Sunset” still brings a tear to the eye after all these years. In honor of the anniversary, here are six vital facts to bring to the next mitzvah, brought to you by the author of Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof.


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1) Sholem Aleichem is actually a pseudonym -- In Yiddish, the name literally translates as “peace be with you,” but colloquially means, simply, “hello!” The sophisticated writer (born Sholem Rabinowitz) used this pen name to cast himself as a simple man of the people, as familiar as a common greeting, and that’s just how he was received. The authors of Fiddler fell in love with the humor and humanity found in Aleichem’s writing.

2) The original production played 900 sell outs (26 months). By then, the show had returned a profit of 352 percent to investors; it would eventually run more than 3200 performances. Not bad for a show that struggled to find a producer. One after another turned down the script, worrying that a story about a Jewish family set in Czarist Russia in 1905 would be too narrow a draw.

3) The famous “Bottle Dance” is not a traditional Jewish folk dance but the razzle-dazzle creation of director-choreographer Jerome Robbins. Robbins had previously staged West Side Story and Gypsy. He did “field research” for Fiddler by attending Orthodox Jewish weddings and festivals where he was thrilled with the men’s dancing.  He observed one man entertaining a crowd by tottering around with a bottle on his head pretending to be drunk. Robbins took that image and elaborated to create the Broadway showstopper featuring four dancers performing precise, electrifying moves.

4) Fiddler was a sensation in Tokyo, of all places. Since its debut there in 1967, it has been produced in Japan hundreds of times, including a major production just last year. The librettist, the late Joe Stein, loved to tell about a producer there who asked how Americans could understand a story that was so Japanese.” Within a decade, Fiddler had played in two-dozen countries, finding universal appeal in its themes of generational conflict, the triumph of love and the dynamic struggle between tradition and change.

5) Fiddler has been reinvented with a Dominican twist. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-award-winning rap musical In the Heights, set in the upper Manhattan immigrant neighborhood of Washington Heights, features a similar tightly knit community in the throes of change. Miranda loves Fiddler so much, he staged a number from it for his own wedding.

6) Lyricist Sheldon Harnick has adapted “Sunrise, Sunset” to fit gay ceremonies at a minister’s request.  The ballad, which Tevye and his wife, Golde, sing as they see their first daughter marry, remains a wedding staple.

Can This Bracelet Actually Replace a Heater?

Smithsonian Magazine

Credit: Wristify/David Cohen-Tanugi

We’ve all been there. Someone, who senses that the room temperature is a bit too cold, decides to turn down the air conditioning. All of a sudden, another person in the building complains that it’s too hot. Uh-oh!

It was this all-too-common predicament playing out six months ago amongst students in an MIT engineering lab that was the genesis for the creation of a device called Wristify, a simple bracelet that’s designed to instantly allow the wearer to feel cooler or warmer by sending out alternating pulses of hot or cold to a small area of skin right beneath. As kooky as it sounds, the research team, along with other volunteers who have tried out the invention, have attested to the fact that the invention indeed works, continually creating a cooling or warming effect that lasts as long as eight hours. Judges from MIT’s annual materials-science design competition, who also tried on the device, recently awarded the team first place and a $10,000 prize.

“Buildings right now use an incredible amount of energy just in space heating and cooling. In fact, all together this makes up 16.5 percent of all U.S. primary energy consumption. We wanted to reduce that number, while maintaining individual thermal comfort,” co-inventor Sam Shames, says in press release. “We found the best way to do it was local heating and cooling of parts of the body.”

While the technology the team has developed appears quite novel, the principle behind it is fairly well documented. Physiologists have known for some time now that the body relies on surface skin on certain spots of the body to detect changes in external temperatures. These areas, called pulse points, are where blood vessels are closest to the skin and signal these sudden shifts to the brain. The neck, for instance, is a pulse point. So are your feet. And that’s why the very moment you dip into a swimming pool, it can feel freezing cold.

“Skin, especially certain parts, is extremely sensitive to changes in temperatures. Rather than being consistent, the reading can be overactive to even slight changes,” says co-inventor David Cohen-Tanugi. ”As an engineer, I’d say it’s a bad thermometer.”

So, in a sense, what the researchers came up with is a way to kind of hack the body. Instead of putting ice cubes or running cold water on your wrist, as is often suggested, the team put its inquisitive engineering minds together to develop a system that automates the cooling and warming effect through a pattern of pulses that would keep the bracelet wearer comfortable. Cohen-Tanugi compares the wave-like emanations of heat and cold pulses to walking on the beach on a hot summer day and catching a cool breeze and, right when the pleasurable sensation begins to subside, receiving another soothing puff of wind. 

“What’s really great about it,” he says, “is that every time the device went off and on, people still felt surprised each time.”

It took fiddling with 15 different prototypes, comprised mostly of parts bought off Amazon, to eventually settle on a version that resembles and feels like a bulky-looking metal wristwatch. Inside, the device features a series of integrated thermometers, finely-tuned software controls and sensors to determine the optimal moments, when someone is feeling a bit too hot or cold, to send a pulse or to stop. For now, it relies on a lithium polymer battery, which lasts eight hours before needing a recharge, to power a copper alloy-based heat sink that’s capable of producing skin temperature changes of up to 0.4 degrees Celsius per second.

Having “pulses” shooting out of your wristwear might sound unnerving to some people, but Cohen-Tanugi points out that thermoelectric technology has been safely used by consumers for some time. Electric blankets, for example, produce and radiate heat using a similar process. The group at MIT isn’t the first to develop a sophisticated product that takes advantage of the “pulse points” principle. One sports apparel company, Mission Athletecare, sells towels, hoodies and other athletic gear designed with special fabric that can be dipped in water to create a “prolonged cooling effect.” And for those who are concerned that tricking the body in this manner may have some serious health consequences, Cohen-Tanugi says it works well, but not that well (nor does it have the potential to ever make heaters or air conditioners obsolete as some media outlets have reported).

“It works best in a moderate environment, like in buildings where for some people the temperature doesn’t feel quite right,” he says. “But it definitely won’t do anything for you when you’re in the Sahara desert and need water or when you’re in Alaska in the winter.”

Ultimately, the team hopes to use the prize money to put something on the market that can be worn all day and sense exactly when you need to be cooled or warmed, as well as make your wrist look good. They’re also open to the idea of integrating the technology into so-called smartwatches, which may make the most sense since this latest breed of mobile computers are being heralded as the next big thing. For now, though, Cohen-Tanugi is fine with having the nuts and bolts model to get him through the day.

“Everyone really likes the blast you get from the cooling effect, but personally I like it in warming mode,” he adds. “I’m one of those people whose hands get cold in the office.”

Labrador Tops Most Popular Dog Breed List for 29th Year in a Row

Smithsonian Magazine

Popularity contests might seem catty, but we humans will do just about anything to promote our pooches. For the 29th year in a row, the Labrador retriever has emerged victorious as America’s number one breed, according to a list released by the American Kennel Club (AKC) on May 1.

Other sought-after canines include German shepherds, golden retrievers, French bulldogs and bulldogs, which nabbed spots two through five, respectively—a ranking identical to last year’s. But as the AKC notes in a statement, some preferences have shifted: 2019 marks the first year in which the Pembroke Welsh corgi broke the top ten, scooting just ahead of the dachshund. (The move also unseated the former tenth place honoree, the Yorkshire terrier, which now finds itself lurking at number 12.) In last place was the English foxhound, a stout, medium-sized dog bred for hunting.

The results were tallied based on the 1.4 million puppies registered by the AKC in 2019. Since the organization only recognizes 193 “official” purebred dogs, mixed-breed pets—including labradoodles (a Labrador crossed with a poodle), Yorkipoos (a Yorkshire terrier-poodle mix), puggles (the product of a beagle-pug union) and other cutesy portmanteaued pups—failed to make the cut. Crucially, these canines represent at least half of all pet dogs in the United States, reports Alicia Lee for CNN.

If Labrador retrievers are unseated in 2020 for the number one spot, it will break what could have been a 30-year streak as the nation's top dog. (Pixabay)

The Labrador retriever’s commanding, unwavering lead at the front of the purebred pack isn’t that surprising, Brandi Hunter, the AKC’s vice president of public relations and communications, tells CNN.

“Labs are an all-around dog,” she says. “They’re great for families that have kids, but also if you have a really active lifestyle and like to hike.”

Smart, athletic and friendly, these popular pups first appeared in the country’s top ten list in the 1970s. They’ve stayed there ever since, according to the AKC. If the breed’s popularity holds through the rest of 2020, Labs will be able to claim a three-decade streak in the number one slot.

An English foxhound that deserves a little more love and respect (Thowra_uk via Flickr under CC BY 2.0)

“This is a do-everything breed that needs to be with its humans,” Erin Henlon-Hall, a Labrador retriever breeder from Villa Ridge, Missouri, says in the AKC statement. “It personifies the definition of versatility—hunting, showing, family, dock diving, tracking, obedience. It’s as American as baseball, hot dogs and apple pie.”

Still, the human-Labrador retriever bond certainly isn’t United-States specific: One of Vladimir Putin’s most famous companions was Konni, a black Lab who spent 15 years at the Russian leader’s side, attending staff meetings and greeting visiting diplomats.

The corgi’s newfound edge, on the other paw, is perhaps less intuitive. A relatively obscure breed throughout the 20th century, the waddly, tailless, fox-eared breed’s new fame as a social media star has likely driven its success, Hunter tells CNN.

Among the internet’s most recognizable corgis are the beloved pets of England’s Elizabeth II, who fell in love with the canines at a young age, around the time her father, George VI, brought home a dog named Dookie in 1933, according to Mental Floss’ Suzanne Raga. The monarch’s passion for the pups was highlighted in the television series “The Crown, winning the breed even more prime time exposure.

Non-royals, too, have championed their corgis with the help of the world wide web. Some of the squat canines, like Ralph the Corgi, have their own Instagrams, updating followers regularly with shots of their slobbery smiles. Others simply make regular appearances on their humans’ social media accounts: Stephen King’s dog, Molly, for instance, features prominently on the author’s Twitter feed. Corgis even have close ties with Amazon, which once claimed a dog named Rufus as its original mascot, honoring the beloved pooch of its former editor-in-chief and principal engineer. (The breed is also a surprisingly good dancer.)

Of course, the hype around corgis isn’t just online, Hunter tells CNN.

“They are a lot of dog in a little package,” she says. “They’re very adaptable, very smart and people tend to really fall in love with them.”

After all, with that face, how could you not?

St. Barts Is Like the Galapagos for Linguistic Diversity

Smithsonian Magazine

The island of Saint Barthélemy isn’t just a popular vacation playground for the rich and famous — it’s also a destination for scholars of languages. Though it is tiny, St. Barts in the Caribbean’s Leeward Islands is home to four different languages, all connected to the island’s history. In the Christian Science Monitor, Ruth Walker, describing the findings of a 2013 book by linguist Julianne Maher, writes:

Today St. Barths is a French territory of eight square miles and about 8,000 people. Professor Maher’s map shows the island’s four sections with their languages: St. Barth Patois in Sous le Vent (the leeward, or western, end); St. Barth Creole in Au Vent (the windward, or eastern, end); “Saline French,” named for local salt ponds, in the center; and English in Gustavia, the capital, built by internationally minded Swedes.

Maher’s book is called The Survival of People and Languages: Schooners, Goats and Cassava in St. Barthélemy, French West Indies; it alludes to three traditional communities on the island—the seafarers, the herdsman and the farmers. The island may be small, but has such strict boundaries that these communtiies all have different blood types, Walker reports. And different languages.

After French settlers arrived in the 17th century, three dialects arose and diversified. Now, the Patois is different from that found in Cajun French or Canadian French; the creole is similar to that of Martinique; the Saline French was mostly spoken by older people, at the time Maher visited, and "very fast." English in the capital cropped up when France’s King Louis XVI gave the island to the Swedes in 1784. Sweden returned St Barts to France in 1978.

Gathering recordings of the different dialects for required hard work, Maher writes in the introduction to her book:

The St. Barths were suspicious of outsiders and their language varieties were used only with family or close friends, not with strangers. And to record their speech? Absolutely not! Initial contacts were very discouraging.

The reluctance, she suggests, lingers from the disparaging attitude that surrounding islands and France took toward people from St. Barts. But dozens of visits over the years built up enough trust for Maher to document the languages. 

The island is more than just a good place to study how distinct languages can emerge even in a small population. It’s also a place to study how languages die. Maher, Walker writes, tells the story of the island’s languages with "an awareness of reporting on phenomena that are vanishing almost as she writes. Many of those she interviewed have since died."

Saline French is "probably already gone," and St. Barts Creole is in decline. Standard French is gaining ground (even pushing English out). But St. Barts Patois is hanging on as a mark of St. Barts identity. But as the isolation of the past fades in the face of tourist traffic and increasing prosperity, that too may change. Maher notes:

My hope is that the reader will come to appreciate not only this distinctive society but also its courage and fortitude in its centuries-old struggle with adversity." 

The Secret Lives of Animals Caught on Camera

Smithsonian Magazine

Great photography is about being in the right place at the right time. But to capture the most candid shots of wild animals, perhaps the right place to be is far away—out of sight, hearing and scent of them.

That’s the concept behind camera trapping, a niche of wildlife photography that has been around for nearly 120 years. It was invented by George Shiras, a one-term congressman working in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, who rigged a clunky camera with a baited trip wire. All types of animals—raccoons, porcupines and grizzly bears—tugged on the wire, which released the camera’s shutter, ignited a loud magnesium powder flash and snapped a portrait of the startled animal. Modern camera traps are digital and take photographs when an animal’s body heat registers on an infrared sensor or the animal crosses a motion-sensitive beam of light. To wildlife, says Roland Kays, a biologist at the New York State Museum, a camera trap is “just a piece of plastic on a tree. They don’t hear anything. There is nothing that they realize is going on.”

Traps from the Appalachian Trail to the Amazon rain forest to giant panda reserves in China have collected so much data that the challenge now is to efficiently organize and analyze it. To encourage sharing among researchers and with the public, the Smithsonian Institution recently unveiled Smithsonian WILD, a portal to more than 200,000 camera-trap photographs from around the world.

In their simplest application, camera traps let biologists know what species inhabit a given area. “For many smaller species it is difficult to tell from track or feces,” says William McShea, a research ecologist with the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Kays’ partner in launching Smithsonian WILD. “This provides ‘proof’ that a specific species was at a specific place on a specific date.” The evidence becomes even more valuable when the species photographed is elusive, threatened or even previously unknown. The only evidence for a tree-dwelling relative of the mongoose called a Lowe’s servaline genet was a pelt that was collected in 1932—until 2000, when one traipsed in front of a camera trap in Tanzania. The furry rump of a wolverine, perhaps the only one living in California, appeared in a photograph taken in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 2008. And a strange, long-snouted insectivore, also in Tanzania, wandered in front of a lens in 2005; scientists eventually captured live specimens and named the newfound species the gray-faced sengi, a kind of elephant shrew.

Image by Smithsonian WILD. Temminck's tragopan photographed in China. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian WILD. Using motion-activated camera-traps, Smithsonian WILD captured unsuspecting animals, such as this snow leopard in China, from all over the world. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian WILD. A giraffe, Kenya (original image)

Image by Smithsonian WILD. A jaguar, Peru. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian WILD. African bush elephants, Kenya. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian WILD. A sambar, China. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian WILD. African lions, Kenya. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian WILD. A blue rock thrush, China. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian WILD. A wild turkey, along the Appalachian Trail. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian WILD. A leopard, China. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian WILD. An Asian black bear, China. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian WILD. A giant panda, China. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian WILD. A sambar, Thailand. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian WILD. A giant armadillo, Peru. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian WILD. Baird's Tapir, Panama. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian WILD. A black bear, along the Appalachian Trail. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian WILD. A howler monkey, Panama. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian WILD. A striped hyena, Kenya. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian WILD. A bobcat, along the Appalachian Trail. (original image)

To estimate the size of an endangered population in the wild, researchers have traditionally used a capture-recapture method, which entails sedating animals, tagging them, releasing them and then recording how many tagged animals are recaptured. For animals that have distinctive markings, such as tigers, “capturing” and “recapturing” can be done less invasively, with camera traps. Photographs of the rare giant sable antelope in Angola inspired a team of scientists to start a breeding program. The cameras can also confirm the success of a conservation effort: In Florida in the mid-1990s, panthers and other wildlife were photographed using highway underpasses that had been built to protect the cats from being hit by cars.

Traps often snap sequences of photographs that can be stitched together to provide insight into complex behaviors. The view is not always glamorous. Traps have caught two white-lipped peccary pigs mating in Peru and golden snub-nosed monkeys urinating on cameras in China. Kays has seen an ocelot curl up for a nap and a vampire bat feed on a tapir’s leg. “If you run enough cameras,” Kays says, “you capture some cool things about what animals do when there is not a person there watching them.”

Researchers often design studies with this in mind. Scientists in Florida and Georgia mounted video cameras near nests of northern bobwhite quail to find out which species were preying on eggs and chicks. They were surprised to find armadillos among the bandits. Remote cameras stationed outside black bear dens in the Allegheny Mountains of western Virginia revealed that hibernating bears leave their dens and their cubs frequently during the winter months. “People have been observing bear dens for years and never documented this phenomenon,” says ecologist Andrew Bridges of the Institute for Wildlife Studies, who led the study.

In one photograph on Smithsonian WILD, a jaguar, head hanging and eyes locked on a camera, closes in. In another, an African buffalo’s mug is so close to the lens that you can see its wet nose glisten. The encounters are dramatic, even entertaining. “We run out and check the camera trap, bring the pictures back, look at them on a computer and get really excited,” says Kays. “We want to share some of that with the public and let them see.”

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