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Cans, baked beans, Lockheed Sirius "Tingmissartoq", Lindbergh

National Air and Space Museum
Six (6) metal cans. Previously a group of eight (8), two have been removed for display in Pioneers of Flight, Gallery 208.

See also: A20030080041 and A20030080043.

These cans of "Heinz Oven Baked Beans" were among the provisions Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, took on their 1931 flight to the Orient and 1933 survey flights across the North and South Atlantic. The Lindberghs tried to conserve their canned food for emergencies, but they would occasionally have a can of baked beans for dinner when fog or darkness forced them to land before their planned destination. Anne did not mind this meager substitute for a proper meal; she thought "cold baked beans spread on biscuit is very good."

Lodging and meals were provided at the Lindberghs' planned stops, but they still had to consider what they would eat in case of an emergency landing. Since they were traveling over vast expanses of uninhabited territory, an emergency landing would have likely put them hundreds of miles away from the nearest outpost. Always meticulous planners, Charles and Anne considered this possibility and took enough canned rations to last them several weeks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten Fascinating Presidential Facts to Impress on Presidents' Day

Smithsonian Magazine

Think you’ve got a firm handle on the presidents? The Smithsonian Book of Presidential Trivia from Smithsonian Books just might make you question how comprehensive your head-of-state knowledge actually is. To commemorate the Presidents' Day holiday, we offer some nuggets excerpted from the book that reveal a few unexpected facts about the sartorial habits, social practices and defining characteristics of our commanders-in-chief.

1. George Washington owned a profitable whiskey distillery.

Whiskey was one of Washington’s most important business ventures at Mount Vernon. At peak production in 1799, the distillery used five stills and a boiler and produced eleven thousand gallons of whiskey. With sales of $7,500 that year, it was perhaps the country’s largest distillery.

Washington’s plantation manager James Anderson, a Scottish man with distilling experience, urged him to start the venture, which was also an efficient way to use unsold ground wheat, corn and rye.

2. James Madison held the first Inaugural Ball.

Although there was a ball in 1789 to honor the election of George Washington, the first official inaugural ball did not occur until 1809, when Madison took office. Madison was sworn in at the U.S. Capitol.

That evening his wife, Dolley Madison, hosted a gala at Long’s Hotel. The price of admissions was four dollars per ticket. Four hundred tickets were sold, and so began a Washington tradition. Today the Presidential Inaugural Committee plans all the official inaugural balls.

3. Gerald Ford was a fashion model in his youth (even appearing on the cover of Cosmopolitan).

Ford’s first love was a woman named Phyllis Brown, a gorgeous blonde who became a fashion model. Brown persuaded Ford to invest in a modeling agency and to do some modeling himself.

Together they appeared in ski resort spread of Look magazine (1940) and on a cover of Cosmopolitan (1942). Ultimately, the pair broke up. She wanted to continue modeling in New York and he decided to forego the runway and begin his law career.

4. Warren Harding had the largest shoe size.

Harding wore a size 14. Unfortunately, those big feet did not ensure that his administration would be on firm footing. It turned out that Harding’s trusted advisors were not so trustworthy, and his presidency was riddled with scandal.

He died before his term was complete, and his wife burned his potentially incriminating correspondence. However, his stately slippers and sporty golf shoes survive at the Smithsonian.

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5. Four presidents have received the Nobel Peace Prize including Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.

Roosevelt received his in 1906 for his many efforts toward international peace, including his role in formulating the 1905 peace treaty between Russia and Japan. Wilson was awarded the Nobel in 1919 for founding the League of Nations after World War I.

Carter was long retired from the presidency when he won the prize in 2002 for his efforts to advance human rights and advance peaceful solutions to international conflicts. Obama was honored with a Nobel in 2009 for his work toward strengthening international diplomacy and cooperation.

6. William Howard Taft became a Supreme Court Justice after his retirement.

A graduate of Yale and Cincinnati Law School, Taft loved law but was unsure about politics. At the urging of his wife, Nellie, and mentor, Theodore Roosevelt, he reluctantly accepted his party’s nomination for the presidency, calling the presidential campaign “one of the most uncomfortable four months of my life.”

After losing the 1912 election to Woodrow Wilson, Taft served as a professor of law at Yale and was later appointed by Warren Harding as chief justice of the United States, a pose he considered his greatest honor.

7. Theodore Roosevelt wore a lock of Lincoln’s hair during his inauguration.

Roosevelt wore a ring with a lock of Lincoln’s hair in it on March 14, 1905, at his second inauguration. Roosevelt had been a long-time admirer of Lincoln, and as a child had watched Lincoln’s funeral procession pass by his house in New York.

Roosevelt’s admiration for Lincoln was reinforced later, when he met John Hay, who had worked for Lincoln in the White House. Hay and Roosevelt talked about Lincoln often, and Hay gave Roosevelt the ring, knowing that Roosevelt would treasure it.

8. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first president to name a woman to his cabinet.

FDR named Frances Perkins as secretary of labor in 1933. The Mount Holyoke College graduate was a trained social worker who had worked in settlement houses in Chicago and Philadelphia. Her efforts on behalf of labor reform took on an added urgency after the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911.

She served as industrial commissioner under Roosevelt when he was governor of New York. As labor secretary, Perkins established the Labor Standards Bureau and was a principal architect of the Social Security Act.

9. John Tyler had 15 children.

Tyler was married twice. He had eight children with his first wife, Letitia. After she died, the 54-year-old president married the 24-year-old Julia Gardiner, with whom he had seven more children.

Tyler wins the prize for being the most prolific of all American presidents.

10. Abraham Lincoln attended séances at the White House.

Lincoln’s wife, Mary Lincoln, became interested in séances after their young son Willie died in 1862. At the White House, she engaged mediums, who conducted “spirit circles” or ceremonies during which those who attended could communicate with their loved ones who had crossed over into the next world.

Mary was eager to believe in these mediums as it made her loss somewhat bearable, and she encouraged the president to attend a few séances, which he did. It is not clear if Lincoln participated to appease his wife or out of real interest and belief.

Ben Franklin Was One-Fifth Revolutionary, Four-Fifths London Intellectual

Smithsonian Magazine

Two hundred and fifty years ago, in February 1766, Benjamin Franklin, the most famous American in London, addressed the British House of Commons. His aim, which he achieved triumphantly, was to persuade Parliament to repeal the Stamp Act, the legislation that had usurped the power of the colonial assemblies and caused the first major breakdown in relations between Britain and its American colonies. Franklin was determined to heal the breach; he sought to help British politicians understand the American continent’s vast potential as part of a closely knit Great British empire. In his own words, he viewed the colonies “as so many counties gained to Great Britain.”

This image of Franklin—working in London to secure Britain’s hold on America—is at odds with the usual picture of a great American patriot and Founding Father. Yet, for the better part of two decades, Franklin called London home. Furthermore, during a full four-fifths of his very long life, Franklin was a loyal British royalist. He was not alone in this. Until the Stamp Act, most Americans had no conception that they would ever be separated from Britain. Indeed, many of our Founding Fathers initially set out to assert their rights as Englishmen. Even as late as 1774, Thomas Jefferson, the chief framer of the Declaration of Independence, used a collection of English Civil War pamphlets when he “cooked up a resolution … to avert us from the evils of civil war.” Franklin himself stayed in London right up to March 1775, in an increasingly desperate search for a peaceful settlement.

Born in Boston in 1706, to an English father, Franklin first lived in London between 1724 and 1726 and worked as a printer. Young Ben’s intellectual framework was formed by the British written word. He perfected his writing style and focus by reading and re-reading Joseph Addison’s and Richard Steele’s articles in The Spectator and rewriting them in his own words. They provided him with a brilliant introduction to London’s intellectual coffeehouse society, enabling the young American to deploy the necessary “polite conversation” that won him rapid acceptance. Franklin recognized his debt, later describing Addison as a man “whose writings have contributed more to the improvement of the minds of the British nation, and polishing their manners, than those of any other English pen whatever.”

The Franklin who returned to America at the age of 20 had the self-confidence bred from talking on equal terms with men such as Sir Isaac Newton’s co-author, Dr. Henry Pemberton, and Bernard Mandeville, whose book The Fable of the Bees was the publishing sensation of the time. In the decades that followed, as he built his own profitable printing and publishing business in Philadelphia, Franklin founded or co-founded some of America’s greatest surviving cultural institutions, including the Library Company, the American Philosophical Society, and what was to become the University of Pennsylvania. He gave them intellectual foundations built on what he had learned and discussed in London and centered on the philosophy of men such as Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and John Locke.

By 1757, Franklin had become a leading member of the Pennsylvania Assembly and was chosen to return to London. His ostensible mission was to open negotiations with Thomas Penn and persuade Pennsylvania’s absentee proprietor to pay at least some local taxes. However, Franklin in London was much more than a Pennsylvanian representative. During the late 1740s and early 1750s he had thrown himself into groundbreaking scientific research, which he published as Experiments and Observations on Electricity, made at Philadelphia in America. This won him the 1753 Copley Medal (the 18th-century equivalent of the Nobel Prize) and a fellowship of the Royal Society. It also transformed his social standing. He was famous. This son of a poor tallow chandler was embraced by a British aristocracy enthralled by science and particularly keen on the sizzle of electricity. Celebrated in London, he was also renowned across Europe, with the great philosopher Immanuel Kant describing him as “the Prometheus of modern times.”

Franklin appreciated his British life from his home in London’s Craven Street, just south of the Strand. This house is the only one of all those in which Franklin lived that still stands today and has just celebrated its 10th anniversary as the Benjamin Franklin House museum and education center. Franklin enjoyed a strong platonic relationship with its owner, Mrs. Stevenson, who was not so much a landlady as the manager of his London household. But he also missed the comforts of home, upbraiding his wife Deborah for failing to send his favourite Newtown Pippin apples and thanking her for dispatching such American delights as buckwheat cakes, cranberries, and “Indian meal.” Deborah was of more use to Franklin back in Philadelphia, managing his affairs there as well as sending him treats. It was an arrangement that suited him far more than her.

Franklin briefly returned to Philadelphia for 18 months between 1762 and 1764, but was soon back in London and increasingly drawn into wider British politics. The Stamp Act repeal proved a false dawn. By 1768, Franklin was acting for four colonial assemblies: Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Georgia, as well as Pennsylvania. His role for the first—the most vehemently opposed to further taxation—brought him into sharp conflict with ministers in Lord North’s government. By the early 1770s, Franklin’s relationship with them was one of mutual loathing. Crucially, it was further inflamed because of Franklin’s close links with a British parliamentary opposition that was seeking power itself. On March 20, 1775, Franklin was forced to flee in order to escape arrest by the men he called “mangling ministers.”

It was only then, at the age of nearly 70, that he discarded his loyalty to the British state and became a fierce advocate of American independence.

Yet even as an American patriot, Franklin once again returned to Philadelphia with British enlightenment values that influenced his fellow Founding Fathers. Having arrived in London with two slaves, Franklin now supported calls for abolition. Though he did not convince Thomas Jefferson on that matter, he did on others. Jefferson’s choice of portraits for his entrance hall at Monticello is instructive. In the most prominent position are three of Franklin’s own British influences: Bacon, Newton and Locke. There is also a fourth. It is of Benjamin Franklin.

As for Franklin himself, he never quite gave up his Atlanticist dream, even after independence was secured. But now it was to be on a different basis. In 1784, he half-jokingly, if in strictest confidence, wrote to his long-time British friend William Strahan with this suggestion: “You still have one resource left and not a bad one since it may re-unite the Empire … if you have not Sense and Virtue enough left to govern yourselves, even dissolve your present old crazy Constitution, and send Members to Congress.”

George Goodwin is the author of the just-published Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America’s Founding Father. He is author in residence at Benjamin Franklin House in London and was a 2014 International Fellow at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies, Monticello.

He wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zócalo Public Square.

Richard Estes' Incredibly Realistic Paintings Require a Double Take

Smithsonian Magazine

Times Square is a good place to go unnoticed. A decade ago, Richard Estes stood there, surrounded by the hustle and bustle of Sesame Street characters and tour bus promoters, and snapped a series of photos. With so many people doing the same thing, it’s unlikely anyone gave much thought to the septuagenarian shutterbug. But for half a century, the art world has lauded Estes for his photorealist paintings, which he creates from photographs. The work that resulted from his Times Square pictures that day and 45 other paintings are now on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The exhibition, “Richard Estes’ Realism,” debuted last week and is open through February 2015. Curators say it’s the world’s most comprehensive Estes exhibition ever, and his largest American showcase in nearly four decades. The show was previously at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, where Patterson Sims, an independent curator and a friend of Estes, suggested they do a retrospective. “He’s just really interested in painting, and just finding extremely complex and interestingly challenging images to paint,” Sims says.

Estes, now 82, lives and works primarily in New York City and has been spending time in coastal Maine since the 1960s. It’s there that he produces nature paintings, which tend to receive less attention than his iconic New York City works. Both of those locales—street and stream—are in the exhibition, as well as scenes from Paris, London, Venice and elsewhere.

Estes is reticent about the underlying symbolism in his work. “You’re never going to get Richard to admit layers of meaning,” Sims says. “It just isn’t the way he’s built. However, he is a very sophisticated person, so all of those issues come into play.” For example, an Estes trademark is visually bisecting his compositions—a bridge on one side and a river on the other, for example. Sims says that technique presents a “duality” that could stem from the artist’s experience as a gay man. “Interior-exterior is an important thing for him, because I think his interior is quite different from his exterior,” Sims says.

As it has been for artists of so many generations, New York City is Estes’ muse. While he depicts its icons, like the Brooklyn Bridge, he also captures the city as only a New Yorker could, giving life to the city’s anonymous inhabitants—the drug store cashiers working around Valentine’s Day, a young man on a bus near the famous Flatiron Building, which is only subtly reflected in a passing car. “Part of the power of these pictures is that there’s kind of like a million stories embedded in them,” Sims says. “If you go to any of these locales, these are the stage sets on which our lives have been led.”

“It’s such a mess,” Estes says of his city, spoken like a true local. “Everything is chaos.”

His paintings take on new significance as the city changes. “They are totally historical documents,” Mark Bessire, director of the Portland Museum, says about the works. Paintings in the exhibition show Paul’s Bridal Accessories on West 38th Street (since demolished) and telephone booths with rotary phones. Even scenes from a decade ago contain remnants of the past, such as the Fleet Bank and Virgin Megastore in Times Square, which have both since closed. An enormous painting of the Brooklyn Bridge, from 1991, takes on a different tone when viewers spot the World Trade Center in the distance, ethereal, like the memory it has become.

As the city changes, so do photographic techniques, and Estes has adapted. He says that he doesn’t like taking pictures with his cell phone (“I’ve tried it and they’re not really good enough”), but he does use digital film ("Everybody does. You can't even get the other stuff."). He uses iPhoto and Photoshop to prepare photos before recreating them in paint. His paintings aren't always entirely true to life; some contain elements from several different photos. For View from Hiroshima (1990), he didn’t like the landscape as it existed, so he moved some mountains into view.

Photorealism became popular in the 1960s. “He was the hot ticket,” Bessire says about Estes at the time. Then, Bessire says, “the art world kind of turned their back.” But that didn’t stop Estes. “He kept at it, and now,” Bessire says, “they’re coming back to him.”

“Richard Estes’ Realism” is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through February 8, 2015.

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Paris Match Opens its Archives and Shares a Trove of Images of Artists in Their Studios

Smithsonian Magazine

A fine hotel lobby always has that mysterious cinematic charm, cast in the theatrical glow of ornate lighting, high ceilings and opulent furnishings. Washington, D.C.'s Sofitel Hotel on 15th Street promotes its luxurious accommodations with no adjective spared—incomparable, presidential, chic, elegant, superb. And indeed, wandering in under the watchful and discerning eye of the concierge, the average visitor naturally assumes the air of propriety before stepping up to the bar to order a martini, shaken but not stirred.

We are not in a museum here, but the works on the walls at the Sofitel have been curated by none other than Olivier Widmaier Picasso, the great artist's grandson and author of the book Picasso: Portrait In Time, in an exhibition entitled, "Revealed." The show opened last week and will remain on view through October 31 before traveling on to Chicago, Montreal and Los Angeles. The 30 photographs were selected by Picasso from the archives of the French weekly magazine Paris Match and offer a unique and rare opportunity to see some of the last century's most revered and most talked about artists at work in their studios or at their easel. The magazine's photographers have somehow captured some of the most intimate moments of these artists engaging with their muse.

"An artist's studio is a reflection of his soul," writes Olivier Widmaier Picasso in the show's accompanying booklet. "A sacred, secret place where his talent is expressed and genius revealed. This is where a painter keeps not only his tubes, brushes and canvases, but also his thoughts, memories, doubts, worries and certainties."

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The works include Salvadore Dalí painting a rhino at a French Zoo, René Magritte donning his characteristic black bowler, Pablo Picasso with three of his many lovers, models and wives, and Henri Matisse just months before his death painting the walls of his room from his bed.

At a recent gathering, Susan Behrends Frank, a curator from DC's Phillips Collection was on hand, admiring the images. The show, she says, "emphasizes the hand of the artist and the mind of the artist." And like everyone in the crowd, Frank was enjoying the behind-the-scenes peek into the artists' lives. "Picasso needed everything around him. His studio is filled with his work. It is all around him. On the floor even. But Joan Miró's studio is nearly empty, elegant, sparse—his brushes meticulously lined up," pointing to Tony Saulnier's 1962 image. All of the artist's brushes on the elegant were neatly aligned with his colored-filled cups.

"I'm looking at this ensemble of images as a curator familiar with the works of these artists, so many of them are held in the Phillips' permanent collections," she added, before marvelling at the unique collaboration that the Paris Match photographers employed. "It's a dynamic conversation between the photographer and the artist." Here is Salvador Dalí at the Vincennes Zoo near Paris in 1955 painting a rhinocerous who is gazing longingly at a full-size reproduction of Vermeer's La Dentelliére. "Dalí is so dramatic."

Other artists include Marc Chagall by the photographer Izis from 1964 painting Mozart's Angel, René Magritte holding a candle to a painting of his wife, Kees Van Dongen in his atelier with actress Brigitte Bardot, as well as Fernando Botero, Jean Cocteau, Francis Bacon, Jeff Koons, Keith Haring, David Hockney, Balthus, Robert Combas, Liu Bolin and Pierre Soulages.

"Revealed" is on view at the Sofitel Hotel in Washington, D.C., at Lafayette Square through October 31 and will travel to the Sofitel Hotels in Chicago (November 2014 to January 2015), Montreal (February to March 2015) and Beverly Hills (April to June 2015).

PHOTOS: Who Were the Six Indian Chiefs in Teddy Roosevelt’s Inaugural Parade?

Smithsonian Magazine

Marching in the parade. Courtesy of the National Museum of American Indian/LOC

Among the 35,000 people who participated in Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade on March 4, 1905, were six men on horseback wearing elaborate headdresses. Each was an Indian chief and each had at one time or another been at odds with the American government. They were Quanah Parker of the Comanche, Buckskin Charlie from the Ute, Hollow Horn Bear and American Horse of the Sioux, Little Plume from the Blackfeet and the Apache warrior Geronimo. As they rode through the streets of Washington on horseback, despite criticism, Roosevelt applauded and waved his hat in appreciation. They are the subject of the American Indian Museum’s exhibit, “A Century Ago: They Came as Sovereign Leaders.”

The six chiefs who rode in Roosevelt’s inaugural parade each had their own objectives to accomplish. Courtesy of the American Indian Museum

“In the years before the 1905 procession, tensions grew between Native peoples and white settlers over rights to natural resources,” writes Jesse Rhodes, covering the exhibit when it was last on view in 2009. Each chief had accepted the invitation, hoping to make progress on crucial negotiations with the president and advocate for the welfare of their people.

The article explains, “‘The driving idea about Native Americans,’ says Jose Barreiro, a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian, ‘was represented by Colonel Pratt who was the head of the Carlisle Indian School and his famous phrase, ‘Kill the Indian, save the man,’ meaning take the culture out of the Indian.’”

The presence of the six men prompted a member of the inaugural committee to ask Roosevelt, “Why did you select Geronimo to march in your parade, Mr. President? He is the greatest single-handed murderer in American history?” Roosevelt replied, “I wanted to give the people a good show.”

Geronimo at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, which marked the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

The eldest of the six men, Goyahkla, or Geronimo as he was nicknamed, was best known to the American public for his role in the Apache wars but he gained another sort of stardom after his eventual surrender in 1886. Exiled to Fort Sill, Oklahoma with his followers, Geronimo began making appearances at national events, including the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. Often receiving payments for such appearances, he even sold signed pictures of himself, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.

The six men line up before the parade begins. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Seen as an opportunity to raise the profile of Indians in American society and gain an audience with the leader of the country, the inaugural parade in 1905 also marked a low point for the chief. After receiving a roar of applause during the parade, Geronimo later visited with the president in his office and pleaded with Roosevelt to let his people go back to their home in Arizona, according to Robert Utley’s new biography Geronimo. “The ropes have been on my hands for many years and we want to go back to our home,” he told the president. But Roosevelt responded through an interpreter, “When you lived in Arizona, you had a bad heart and killed many of my people. . . We will have to wait and see how you act.”

In the Inaugural parade, Geronimo proudly wore a beaded headdress. Photo courtesy of the American Indian Museum

Geronimo began to object but he was silenced by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Francis Ellington Leupp, who led him out of the president’s office. “I did not finish what I wished to say,” he told Leupp, according to an article in the New York Tribune.

Leupp insisted that Geronimo was “better off” in Oklahoma. And though he patronizingly described the chief as an example of a “good Indian,” he remained unsympathetic to his requests.

When Geronimo died in 1909 he was still in Fort Sill. In his obituary, the New York Times wrote, “Geronimo gained a reputation for cruelty and cunning never surpassed by that of any other American Indian chief.”

There was no mention of his role in the recent inauguration or the dedication in his 1906 autobiography which read, “Because he has given me permission to tell my story; because he has read that story and knows I try to speak the truth; because I believe that he is fair-minded and will cause my people to receive justice in the future; and because he is chief of a great people, I dedicate this story of my life to Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States.”

A Century Ago: They Came As Sovereign Leaders” is at the American Indian Museum through February 25, 2013.

Would the Legendary Babe Ruth Still Be a Star if He Played Today?

Smithsonian Magazine

Baseball has been a part of the author Jane Leavy’s life from the time she acquired her first baseball mitt as a youngster growing up on Long Island. Her second home was her grandmother’s apartment, in the Yankee Arms, a building a long loud foul ball from Yankee Stadium. Naturally, as a lover of sports, the Bronx Bombers became her main squeeze.

Leavy is an acclaimed sports writer, formerly for the Washington Post, and the author of best-selling biographies about Sandy Koufax and Mickey Mantle. Her current project, a biography of the Yankee’s immortal slugger, Babe Ruth, The Big Fella will be available in the fall of 2018. Concurrent with a show I curated at the National Portrait Gallery exhibition, “One Life: Babe Ruth,” I invited Leavy to share her insights about one of America’s most iconic sporting legends.

What attracted you to Babe Ruth? For Ruth, there are so many gaps in primary sources, is a thorough biography possible?

Where do you go after Koufax and Mantle? The Babe. The more difficult question for me is where do you go AFTER The Babe. I was very concerned about the lack of primary sources when I agreed to do the book. I’m a journalist. Talking to people—and finding people to talk to—is what I’m trained to do. For this project, I had to learn to be more of a historian than a reporter. I had to learn to plumb newly digitized state and newspaper archives to find material about his early life that wouldn’t have been readily available to previous biographers. So what began as a daunting challenge actually became an advantage. 

Who are you interviewing? Are you able to bring new reportage to this story? What are you learning?

I tracked down as many of his far-flung descendants as I could with the understanding that much of their knowledge was anecdotal at best and not all of it would survive fact-checking. I was able to find an astonishing number of 90-year-olds who had met him in the 1940s.  Their childhood recollections helped capture the awe he was held in by kids even as he was aging and dying. I dug up as many relatives as possible of folks who either participated in or attended his barnstorming games in October 1927. That barnstorming tour, orchestrated by Ruth’s agent Christy Walsh, for Ruth and Gehrig forms the spine of the book.

Ruth routinely ignored most of the traditional training and fitness régimes most athletes adhere to. How could he manage to excel as a baseball star?

The caricature of the fat man on “debutante” ankles is what we remember but it wasn’t an accurate picture of The Babe who hit 59 home runs in 1921. He was sublimely talented but he was also bigger, taller and stronger than any of his contemporaries.  He stood quite literally head and shoulders above them. In his early years, before he bulked up—to put it kindly—he was 6’2” and perhaps 200 pounds. The reason he remains undoubtedly the best player in Major League history is that he was both an extraordinary pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, a league-leading lefty starter who might well have made the Hall of Fame on those credentials, as well as the man who created power baseball.

How would Ruth have fared in today's world, both in and out of the ball park?

Off the field, he’d have protectors to shield him against his own worst instincts but he’d be subject to iPhone stalkers and the videos that have exposed present day athletes—see Michael Phelps et al. And he wouldn’t have a complicit press corps willing to draw and observe the line between public and private. He’d be as big a personality as he was then but he wouldn’t be the original he was when he decided to remake baseball in his own image. His peers would be as large physically as he was or bigger and, of course, he’d have to face the best of the very large pool of African-American talent that was barred from Major League competition.  

What aspect of Ruth's life do you find to be the most compelling to contemplate—his baseball prowess, his risqué social life, both?

I think he was a revolutionary, an inadvertent radical, a man who decided not that he was bigger than the game but to make the game bigger than it was. Why should he play small ball and allow the game to be dictated from the dugout when he can control it from the batter’s box? Why shouldn’t he barnstorm against Negro Leaguers? Why shouldn’t he hire an agent—the first in professional sports—to represent his interests? He reinvented the game on and off the field in his own image. 

Ruth was a loquacious extravert. Did he have a secret life? Was he good at keeping secrets?

Yes, he was good at keeping secrets but he also had a lot of help from the press until Joe Patterson, owner of the New York Daily News, decided to cover him by modern standards, exposing in 1925 the extra-marital affair with Claire Hodgson that ended his first marriage. He wouldn’t get away with it today.

How long did it take to research and write your biography of Ruth? Did you encounter any surprises? Did Ruth's few descendents have any insights to share?

I’m still making calls and still researching so it’s going on six years. Yes, but I’ve got to keep some of those surprises for the book. His daughter Julia Ruth Stevens, a very gracious woman now 100-years-old, told me something that became a sort of touchstone in my understanding of him. When I asked her what he shared about his years at St. Mary’s Industrial School, the reform school in Baltimore where he was sent by his parents, she replied, “He said he never felt full.” I think that was both a literal and emotional truth for him.

As a former sports reporter, have you met any athletes who reminded you of Ruth in character and temperament? And in what way?

Nobody comes close.  

How extraordinary was Ruth? Does he live up to the legends about him? Was Ruth truly one of a kind?

To quote the late Jim Murray, of the Los Angeles Times:  "A star is not something that flashes through the sky. That’s a comet. Or a meteor. A star is something you can steer ships by. It stays in place and gives off a steady glow; it is fixed, permanent. A star works at being a star… Stars never take themselves for granted. That’s why they’re stars.” That’s Ruth

"One Life: Babe Ruth" is on view through May 21, 2017 at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. 

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The Deep South, As Seen Through the Eyes of Renowned Photographer Steve McCurry

Smithsonian Magazine

Over the course of his career, Steve McCurry has taken some iconic photographs, among the most memorable is the “Afghan Girl” portrait he captured while on assignment for National Geographic in 1985. In the years since, McCurry has worked with Smithsonian magazine on multiple occasions, and his work has appeared in countless other publications, books and exhibits. Much of his best-known work has come from remote regions: places that are inaccessible and distant, or difficult to relate to. This fall, he has two book projects coming out, each about places that could, in their own ways, be considered remote. His photographs of the American South will appear this week in famed travel writer Paul Theroux’s new book, Deep South. (An early dispatch of this trip from Theroux, and featuring McCurry’s photography, appeared in Smithsonian in the July/August 2014 issue.) Next month, a collection of his photographs from India will be released by Phaidon. McCurry spoke with Smithsonian.com about both projects in a two-part Q&A. An edited and condensed version of the first part, on Deep South, is below.

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How did this collaboration come about in the first place?

Well, Paul [Theroux] and I have been working together since 1984. We did a book together, we did an assignment together in Costa Rica. I visited him at his home in Hawaii. We have a long history of working together.

Paul Theroux has a very distinct style of travel writing and you have a very distinct style of photography. How would you describe Paul’s style?

I think his writing is direct, it’s simple, it’s understandable. He has great insight into people, into human behavior. He’s one of the greatest storytellers. He’s written like 50 books, he’s simply a great storyteller and he has a real insight into human nature.

Many of those same things could be said about the way you take photographs. I’m curious if you think there’s a certain humor he brings to his projects, for instance. I’m curious if there is stylistic choices like that that jump out at you that may differ from how you approach documentary journalism.

Paul has a keen sense of humor and a sharp wit. I think that there is a lot of humor in his writing. And I think he’s able to often cut to the core in, sometimes, a very humorous way, getting to the point of a situation, or cutting through some of the nonsense to get some truth in situations.

Were there any particular images or people or places that really stuck with you?

We met a number of black farmers. It was fascinating to see what their lives were like throughout the years, some of the difficulties they had, operating large farms in the South.

Were there particular photographs that really stuck with you?

Mary Ward Brown was this very interesting writer who actually died shortly after we photographed her and interviewed her. She lived in this extremely remote part of Alabama, in this small house, yet she was this very literary person. She was a wonderful writer. Her house was full of books and art. Very sophisticated, very elegant, very witty. It was fascinating to see this woman in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of Alabama, off in the middle of fields of cotton or whatever.

And then there was this bridal shop in Philadelphia, Mississippi. That was interesting because it was sort of ghostly. It was a very rainy Sunday afternoon and it was completely empty, and there was this one bridal shop in the middle of this town, it was just surreal. You felt like you were in the twilight zone. Just a bride dressed up in a white gown on an empty street.

It’s definitely haunting image.

And then there was [my photo of] Route 301 in Allendale, South Carolina. All the traffic now really goes on the interstate. I used go down to Atlanta and I would travel on this road. It’s this abandoned, desolate, forgotten piece of highway that the world has really passed by. It’s fascinating because it’s a piece of history now. It’s not relevant.

Do you feel that you approach documenting a place like the South and a place like India the same way? Or do you have different treatments for different places?

Let me answer your question that way: I see absolutely zero difference between working in the southern part of the United States and working, say, in any place in India. I see it as exactly the same thing.

Meet the 100 Most Significant Americans of All Time

Smithsonian Magazine

How much does Thomas Paine matter? More than Harriet Beecher Stowe? Less than Elvis? On a par with Dwight Eisenhower? Would you have answered these questions differently ten years ago? Will you answer them differently ten years from now? In a culture so saturated with information and so fragmented by the search possibilities of the Internet, how do we measure historical significance?

Steven Skiena and Charles B. Ward have come up with a novel answer. Skiena is the Distinguished Teaching Professor of Computer Science at Stony Brook University and a co-founder of the social-analytics company General Sentiment. Ward is an engineer at Google, specializing in ranking methodologies. Their answer involves high-level math. They subject the historical zeitgeist to the brute rigors of quantitative analysis in a recent book, Who’s Bigger? Where Historical Figures Really Rank.

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Who's Bigger?: Where Historical Figures Really Rank

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Simply put, Skiena and Ward have developed an algorithmic method of ranking historical figures, just as Google ranks web pages. But while Google ranks web pages according to relevance to your search terms, Skiena and Ward rank people according to their historical significance, which they define as “the result of social and cultural forces acting on the mass of an individual’s achievement.” Their rankings account not only for what individuals have done, but also for how well others remember and value them for it.

Their method requires a massive amount of big data on historical reputation. This they found in the English-language Wikipedia, which has more than 840,000 pages devoted to individuals from all times and places, plus data extracted from the 15 million books Google has scanned. They analyzed this data to produce a single score for each person, using a formula that incorporates the number of links to each page, the number of page visits, the length of each entry and the frequency of edits to each page. Their algorithms differentiate between two kinds of historical reputation, what they call “gravitas” and “celebrity.” Finally, their method requires a means of correcting for the “decay” in historical reputation that comes with the passage of time; they developed an algorithm for that, too. By their reckoning, Jesus, Napoleon, Muhammad, William Shakespeare and Abraham Lincoln rank as the top five figures in world history. Their book ranks more than 1,000 individuals from all around the world, providing a new way to look at history.

Skiena and Ward would be the first to acknowledge that their method has limitations. Their concept of significance has less to do with achievement than with an individual’s strength as an Internet meme—how vividly he or she remains in our collective memory. The English-language Wikipedia favors Americans over foreigners, men over women, white people over others and English speakers over everyone else. In their rankings of Americans only, past presidents occupy 39 of the first 100 spots, suggesting an ex-officio bias.

That’s where we come in. Smithsonian magazine has been covering American history in depth from its inaugural issue, published in 1970. Among the Smithsonian Institution museums we work closely with is the National Museum of American History. By synthesizing our expertise with the systematic rigor of Skiena and Ward’s rankings, we sought to combine the best of quantitative measures and qualitative judgment. 

First, we asked Skiena and Ward to separate figures significant to American history from the world population. Then, rather than simply taking their top 100, we developed categories that we believe are significant, and populated our categories with people in Skiena and Ward’s order (even if they ranked below 100). This system helped mitigate the biases of Wikipedia.

We have highlighted what we decided was the most interesting choice within each category with a slightly fuller biographical sketch. And finally, we made an Editors’ Choice in each category, an 11th American whose significance we’re willing to argue for.

Argument, of course, has been integral to American historiography from the beginning. When Andrew Gelman, a professor of statistics and political science at Columbia University, wrote that Who’s Bigger? “is a guaranteed argument-starter,” he meant it as a compliment. We hope our list will spark a few passionate discussions as well.

Here is our list; to read about what made each person siginficant, pick up a copy of the special issue at a newsstand near you.

Trailblazers

Christopher Columbus
Henry Hudson
Amerigo Vespucci
John Smith
Giovanni da Verrazzano
John Muir
Meriwether Lewis and William Clark
Sacagawea
Kit Carson
Neil Armstrong
John Wesley Powell

Rebels & resisters

Martin Luther King Jr.
Robert E. Lee
Thomas Paine
John Brown
Frederick Douglass
Susan B. Anthony
W.E.B. Du Bois
Tecumseh
Sitting Bull
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Malcolm X

Presidents

Abraham Lincoln
George Washington
Thomas Jefferson
Theodore Roosevelt
Ulysses S. Grant
Ronald W. Reagan
George W. Bush
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Woodrow Wilson
James Madison
Andrew Jackson

First Women

Pocahontas
Eleanor Roosevelt
Hillary Clinton
Sarah Palin
Martha Washington
Hellen Keller
Sojourner Truth
Jane Addams
Edith Wharton
Bette Davis
Oprah Winfrey

Outlaws

Benedict Arnold
Jesse James
John Wilkes Booth
Al Capone
Billy the Kid
William M. “Boss” Tweed
Charles Manson
Wild Bill Hickok
Lee Harvey Oswald
John Dillinger
Lucky Luciano

Artists

Frank Lloyd Wright
Andy Warhol
Frederick Law Olmsted
James Abbott MacNeill Whistler
Jackson Pollock
John James Audubon
Georgia O’Keeffe
Thomas Eakins
Thomas Nast
Alfred Stieglitz
Ansel Adams

Religious figures

Joseph Smith Jr.
William Penn
Brigham Young
Roger Williams
Anne Hutchinson
Jonathan Edwards
L. Ron Hubbard
Ellen G. White
Cotton Mather
Mary Baker Eddy
Billy Graham

Pop icons

Mark Twain
Elvis Presley
Madonna
Bob Dylan
Michael Jackson
Charlie Chaplin
Jimi Hendrix
Marilyn Monroe
Frank Sinatra
Louis Armstrong
Mary Pickford

Empire-builders

Andrew Carnegie
Henry Ford
John D. Rockefeller
J.P. Morgan
Walt Disney
Thomas Alva Edison
William Randolph Hearst
Howard Hughes
Bill Gates
Cornelius Vanderbilt
Steve Jobs

Athletes

Babe Ruth
Muhammad Ali
Jackie Robinson
James Naismith
Arnold Schwarzenegger
Ty Cobb
Michael Jordan
Hulk Hogan
Jim Thorpe
Secretariat
Billie Jean King

Five Things to Know about Kissing Bugs and Chagas Disease

Smithsonian Magazine

Kissing is an activity that can usually be characterized as sweet to passionate. But the "kissing bug" is anything but romantic: The insect sucks blood and can spread a parasite that causes Chagas disease. Both terms (kissing bug and Chagas disease) are probably unfamiliar to most Americans, but in light of a recent rash of the disease in Texas, they probably shouldn’t be.

Most sources label Chagas as a tropical disease, but it used to be more common in the southern U.S. and now seems to be making a comeback. Experts blame a number of factors, including climate change, for the rise of some tropical diseases in the U.S. Many doctors don’t or aren’t trained to recognize the symptoms, hastening these illnesses’ slow creep northward.

A joint investigation by Seema Yasmin of The Dallas Morning News and Scott Friedman and Eva Parks of NBC5 explores what it means when a disease creeps unnoticed into the population, using the example of Chagas disease in Texas. The full report is worth reading, but here are some quick facts on the disease:

The Disease Is a Parasite Infection

Chagas disease is spread by the nocturnal, blood-sucking kissing bug, also called Rhodnius prolixus. These insects tend to bite sleeping people on the thin skin near their mouths, leaving a bite wound that earns them their nickname.  Unfortunately, the bugs also defecate on the source of their meal. These feces can enter the wound when a person scratches or rubs their face, and if the bug was infected with a parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi, infection with Chagas disease can follow. 

The insects themselves seem to have genetic modifications that modify it’s immune system to tolerate the parasite, according to new research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The parasite can also hitch a ride in blood transfusions, from a mother to her fetus or, rarely, if someone eats raw food (like fruit) that has been contaminated by the insect or parasite. 

Not Everyone Shows Symptoms

During the first few months after a bite, only mild symptoms crop up, and these are hard to pin on Chagas—fever, fatigue, body aches, loss of appetite, diarrhea and vomiting. The most distinctive sign is a swelling of the eyelids on the side of the face that was bitten. But there can be no signs at all. Very rarely, young children can die of infection of the heart or brain at this stage. After about 8 to 12 weeks, only about 30 percent will develop chronic Chagas disease. For some this can lead to worse symptoms like heart failure or even cardiac arrest, decades after their initial infection. 

Keep the Numbers in Mind

The risk of picking up Chagas is still low in the U.S.—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates just 300,000 people in the nation carry the parasite responsible for the disease. But because people can be unknowing carriers for decades, estimated prevalence is hard. The risk is slightly higher in Texas where "one in every 6,500 blood donors are infected with Chagas disease, compared with one in every 27,500 donors across the country," the reporters write for The Dallas Morning News and NBC5

Even so, the disease is a very real concern for many in tropical countries. The World Health Organization estimates 6 to 7 million people are infected worldwide, most in Latin America, but The Chagas Disease Foundation puts that number as high as 20 million. (For comparison, there were about 214 million cases of malaria in 2015.) 

The Disease Isn’t New

In 1909, Brazilian physician and epidemiologist Carlos Justiniano Ribeiro Chagas first described a parasite he found in the intestines of people living in a rural area of the Amazon. He also found that large insects the same genus as kissing bugs could give monkeys the parasite by biting. (The disease is probably much older than that: Researchers have found that a 9,000-year-old Chinchorro mummy carried the parasite.) Yet it wasn't until 1966 that researchers developed the first treatments.

There Is Treatment

Two medicines (benznidazole and nifurtimox​) are almost 100 percent effective in curing the disease if its caught in the first stage, according to WHO. However, there is no vaccine to prevent infection. Screening blood donors, spraying houses, using bed nets as well as attention to hygiene are the best ways to prevent Chagas disease.

H/T Juliana Barrera at Latin Times

Strange Rain: Why Fish, Frogs and Golf Balls Fall From the Skies

Smithsonian Magazine

Earlier this year, a milky white rain coated cars, windows and people in parts of Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The precipitation wasn’t dangerous, but it was a bit of a mystery.

Rain isn’t pure water, because precipitation can’t form without some sort of particle to act as a nucleus, which gathers water molecules from the air until the drop gets heavy enough to fall. But sometimes rain is a lot dirtier than normal. Brian Lamb, an air quality specialist at Washington State University, and his colleagues thought that the milky rain might be due to one of the wildfire burn scars they were studying in the Pacific Northwest.

“If a windstorm comes along with the right conditions, you can produce really huge dust and ash plumes from these burn scars,” he says. But the team couldn’t trace the milky rain to one of those sites. Eventually, scientists found the source—a dust storm had whipped up particles from a shallow lakebed in southern Oregon that had a high amount of saline, similar to the composition of the milky rain.

This unusual weather in the Pacific Northwest is just the latest in a long history of weird rains that may have scientific backing, according to Rain: A Natural and Cultural History. “Frog and toad rains, fish rains and colored rains—most often red, yellow or black—are among the most common accounts of strange rain, reported since ancient times,” author Cynthia Barnett notes in the book.

Heraclides Lembus, a Greek philosopher who lived in the second century B.C., writes: “In Paeonia and Dardania, it has, they say, before now rained frogs; and so great has been the number of these frogs that the houses and the roads have been full of them.”

The phenomenon is not restricted to history. The village of Yoro in Honduras celebrates the annual Festival de la Lluvia de Peces, to commemorate the rain of small, silvery fish that allegedly happens at least once a year. And in 2005, thousands of itty-bitty frogs reportedly rained down on a town in northwestern Serbia. “The frogs, different from those usually seen in the area, survived the fall and hopped around in search of water,” according to one news story.

“Still more peculiar rains reported over history have included hay, snakes, maggots, seeds, nuts, stones and shredded meat (that last one is suspected to have dropped from a boisterous flock of feeding vultures),” Barnett writes. She even found one account of a rain of golf balls in Florida—potentially linked to a waterspout crossing over a golf course. 

A 16th-century illustration shows a rain of frogs recorded in Europe in 1355. (Heritage Images/Corbis)

“I always find the frogs and the fish to be weird,” says John Knox, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Georgia. “And I’m not sure we total understand that, but it seems that it has to be that somewhere there’s a waterspout or a tornado … something must have gone over a lake, sucked up a bunch of fish” or other material and dropped it somewhere else.

How far an object travels depends on shape, weight and wind, Knox says. In his studies of tornado debris, he has documented printed photographs that traveled as far as 200 miles and a metal sign that flew about 50 miles. “That sign went up and did the magic carpet ride,” landing in the next state, he says.

Dust, the usual culprit behind oddly colored rains, can travel a lot farther. Yellow dust that fell on western Washington in 1998 was traced to the Gobi Desert. And the Sahara can spread its dust thousands of miles across the Atlantic. “If that dust plume interacts with some precipitation, then you’ve got the ingredients where the dust is washed out in rainfall,” says Lamb. “The color of the rain will probably reflect the mineral composition of the source.”

The Saharan dust produces red rains, for instance, and the Gobi Desert yellow ones. Black rains can come from volcanoes or from pollution. Dirty, greasy rains that turned sheep black in 19th-century Europe were linked to the soot from the great manufacturing centers in England and Scotland. And in more recent history, the burning of Kuwaiti oil wells in the Gulf War in 1991 caused black rain and snow to fall in India.

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The source of colored rains is not always clear. A mysterious red rain has sometimes fallen on the southwest coast of India. “People have observed red stains so rich they can stain white clothes pink,” Barnett writes. Researchers have found tiny red particles in the precipitation that look like cells, but what those cells might be has yet to be determined.

And there is one yellow rain that fell on villages in Laos in 1978 that has people still arguing over what actually happened. Refugees claimed that the substance fell from planes or helicopters, and some experts suspected that it was a chemical weapons attack. But other scientists proposed a different cause: mass “defecation flights” by honeybees that rained yellow bee feces.

But while rains of objects or colored rains may seem odd, they are more common than we realize. In the early 20th century, Charles Hoy Fort collected around 60,000 newspaper reports that described falls of everything from frogs and snakes to cinders and salt. Even that milky rain in the Pacific Northwest wasn’t a first for the area, notes Lamb.

“Here in eastern Washington, we’ve experienced those kinds of rains periodically,” he says.

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

Smithsonian Magazine

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

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

Kiah Williams, Adam Kircher and George Wang

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

Williams: We are trying to solve two problems simultaneously.

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

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

So, what exactly is SIRUM?

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did you come up with this concept?

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

How would you describe your success to date?

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

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

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

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

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

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

These Pictures Give a Rare Glimpse Into the Heart of the Pluto Flyby

Smithsonian Magazine

Never before in Earth's history has anyone waited so eagerly to see summer travel photos. This week the Internet exploded with rapture as the New Horizons spacecraft sent back its first close-up images of Pluto and its moons after a 9.5-year, 3-billion-mile road trip.

New Horizons spent part of its voyage in cruise control, hibernating and saving its energy for the big event. Upon waking up last December, its instruments started gathering pictures and other scientific readings as it sped toward Pluto. Then, around 9 p.m. ET on July 14, it relayed its most crucial field note: the spacecraft had survived its delicate flyby maneuver, and its computers are now brimming with new information about this strange, icy world.

Over the next 16 months, data sent back from the encounter will help humans finally get to know the last—and arguably most beloved—classical planet. But while pictures from the spacecraft are dazzling scientists, fine art photographer and author Michael Soluri has been turning his lens on the scientists, flight controllers and engineers, so we can get to know the humans involved in revolutionizing our understanding of the outer solar system.

"I have always been struggling to find the humanity in space exploration, on Earth and above," says Soluri. "I brought my sons down to the Air and Space Museum in 1984 or 1985. I took them in, and there was an exact replica of the Viking lander [sent to Mars in 1975]. So we're looking at it, and there's this big robot and I'm seeing all this text, and something's puzzling me: I didn't see the picture of the person who made it possible. And I held on to that for like 20 years."

After a career in fashion photography, followed by work in documentaries and corporate communications, Soluri went looking for a space mission to help him express that humanity. In June 2005, at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, he found New Horizons.

"I explained that I wanted to do an interpretive shot of the probe, and I wanted to backlight it. To me, it was like a piece of sculpture. They said sure, come on down. Then I turned to doing portraits of the people." One of Soluri's images of mission leader Alan Stern ended up in TIME magazine, when Stern was listed as one of the 2007 TIME 100. "And then Alan and I had dinner one night, and he asked if I would be willing to continue doing this all the way through. So the journey has been this weave—every couple of years I would come in and visually sample the mission."

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One of his signatures involves asking mission members to write something on a slate that captures how they are feeling at that moment. Like a comic book thought bubble, the technique gives viewers a peek inside the minds of his subjects, adding another layer of connectivity between the viewer and the scientists. One of these shots features mission operations manager Alice Bowman, taken at 1 a.m. the night last December when the spacecraft electronically woke up for the last time before its close approach.

"Everyone was feeling a little woozy. The media had just gone out, so it was me and Mike [Buckley] and Glen [Fountain] of the Applied Physics Lab, and Alice was pushing a coffee cart … so I asked her, tell me something about coffee and Pluto." Her response, seen in the image above, is immediately relatable.

Soluri will be following the New Horizons team for the foreseeable future, but he's also keen to gain the same kind of trust and access to document future space missions that he had for New Horizons and another project documenting the last servicing mission for the Hubble Space Telescope.

"I think James Webb is the next big one," he says, referring to the giant infrared telescope due to launch in 2018, which is billed as the successor to Hubble. "Some of the guys on the New Horizons team will be working on Solar Probe Plus—I'm interested in that." Solar Probe Plus, also slated for a 2018 launch, is designed to dip into the sun's blazing hot corona and solve mysteries about our nearest star. "Just the engineering in building this thing, the shielding … I would love to have the access to be able to do that. But they all present photographic opportunities in seeking and documenting the humanity of space exploration as art."

Note: The gallery above has been updated to include photos from the moment of the spacecraft's closest encounter with Pluto and the moment mission managers received the OK signal from the spacecraft.

Are We Close to Having a Blood Test That Detects Cancer?

Smithsonian Magazine

We’re about seven months into the “Cancer Moonshot” mission, the federal project with the ambitious goal of doubling the rate of progress of cancer research. It’s President Barack Obama’s reboot of the “War on Cancer,” which despite more than $100 billion in government spending since the 1970s didn’t really make a big difference in the overall cancer death rate in the U.S.

While “Cancer Moonshot” may seem simply a new name for the same daunting challenge, it actually has a much better chance of success. Not only do scientists now have a clearer understanding of the complexities of the disease and a realization that there is no one cure for all cancers, but they also have the benefit of supercomputers that can analyze an enormous amount of cancer research and the mapping of the human genome.

The latter has opened up promising avenues of treatment, such as new bio-technology that creates immune cells to fight cancer, and more precise treatments based on a patient’s DNA.

At the same time, real progress is being made on another key front—the ability to detect traces of cancer in a person’s body without needing to do something as invasive as a conventional biopsy. The process, known as a liquid biopsy, involves only drawing blood from a patient.

Floating cancer DNA

What tips off the presence of cancer are fragments of mutated DNA released by tumor cells into a person’s bloodstream. These can be found by scanning the blood through a gene-sequencing machine. Since early detection has long been considered a key to surviving cancer, scientists are hopeful a blood test that lets doctors know cancer is present before it begins to spread could make a big difference in the number of people who beat the disease.

It could also become a huge business. Some analysts have estimated that liquid biopsies could soon become a $10 billion-a-year industry. This, not surprisingly, has helped spark a flurry of research on the technology, and some positive results have recently been reported.

Earlier this month, a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Australia published a study suggesting that they could pretty accurately predict if a colon cancer patient would have a recurrence of the disease. After doing a series of liquid biopsies on 230 patients over two years, they found that 79 percent of the patients whose blood still had traces of tumor DNA after surgery suffered a relapse. These were all patients with stage 2 colon cancer that had not yet metastasized.

The test wasn’t perfect. Almost 10 percent of the patients who didn’t appear to have tumor DNA in their blood had their cancers come back. Still, the scientists said the liquid biopsies could provide a strong indication as to whether a patient was cured through surgery or if he or she also needed to be treated with chemotherapy to take care of cancer traces that remained.

Last month, at the American Society of Clinical Oncology conference in Chicago, researchers presented the largest study yet of liquid biopsies, reporting that blood tests to detect cancer mutations largely agreed with what was found through conventional biopsies. In that case, the scientists analyzed more than 15,000 liquid biopsies that had been performed by Guardant Health, a Silicon Valley startup.

Those blood samples came from patients with several different types of cancer, including lung, breast and colorectal. For about 400 of those patients, there were also tumor tissue samples. When the blood samples and tissue samples were compared, the researchers found the same cancer mutations in both more than 90 percent of the time.

Those impressive results were for a gene mutation associated with tumor growth. There was less agreement between the two types of biopsies, however, when the scientists analyzed mutations that indicate potential resistance to certain drugs. Also, for about 15 percent of the patients overall, the liquid biopsies didn’t show any evidence of the tumor.

Reality check

This recent research does boost the prospects for liquid biopsies, but the tests still have a long way to go before they’re considered reliable enough to replace more invasive biopsies. So far, studies have involved samples from patients who were already known to have cancer. That suggests liquid biopsies could be useful in monitoring tumors to determine if a treatment has been effective. 

But the evidence is less convincing that they can be trusted to find cancer on their own. Medical professionals worry about false negatives, in cases where some cancers may not secrete the DNA fragments early in the development of the disease, and false positives, where a test may pick up evidence of cancer in a very early stage that could be eliminated by the body’s immune system. Those patients might end up going through an unnecessary round of invasive tests. The overall concern is that patients may begin viewing liquid biopsies as a relatively painless screening test for all cancers, and will start requesting them to avoid unpleasant procedures, such as colonoscopies.

“I would argue that implementing an unproven screening program could violate the medical affirmation to 'first, do no harm,'" wrote Richard Hoffman in the Health News Review. Hoffman, director of the Division of General Internal Medicine at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine, argues that more evidence is also needed to show that early detection will actually increase a patient’s lifespan, so that they’re not submitted to the physical and financial demands of treatment years before it’s necessary. 

Last fall, the FDA sent a warning letter to a company called Pathway Genomics that was marketing blood tests, costing between $300 and $700, as an early cancer detection tool. The federal agency said it had found no clinical evidence that a blood test could serve as a valid screen for cancer.

Nonetheless, a number of companies are banking on liquid biopsies becoming a boom business. Earlier this year, Guardant Health, the firm involved in the study presented in Chicago in June, announced that it had raised $100 million in funding, while another, Exosome Diagnostic, said it had raised $60 million.

Around the same time, Illumina, the world’s largest maker of gene-sequencing machines, raised about $100 million to start its own liquid biopsy company. Among the investors are Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

To get a sense of their expectations, consider that they’ve named it Grail.  

A World Of His Own: The Art of James Castle

Smithsonian Magazine

The world as seen through the eye of the self-taught artist James Castle, one that is drawn in black and white lines made from the simple mixing of soot and saliva, is a unique one. Not just for its place in time—in the waning years of the early 20th century when the Western frontier was being settled—but for the circumstances surrounding the artist's early life and his prodigious work output. "He stored his art in many locations around the family property—in barns, sheds, attics, walls," says curator Nicholas Bell, co-author of the show's catalog Untitled: The Art of James Castle. "But I wouldn't say he was trying to hide it from anyone, per se. Before he died he communicated through gestures to his family where all of his art was stored so they could take care of it."

Born profoundly deaf, Castle never learned to read, write or communicate in any traditional sense. Yet for nearly 70 years, Castle interacted with the world around him communicating through his art, creating drawings, books and constructions that reflected his individual reality. "James Castle is his own art history," explained John Ollman, owner of the Fleisher/Ollman Gallery in the 2008 documentary James Castle: Portrait of an Artist. "He's using himself as his own reference material."

Through February 1, 2015, Castle's work will be on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in "Untitled: The Art of James Castle," an exhibition that celebrates a 2013 acquisition of 54 Castle pieces, making the museum home to one of the largest collections of the artist's works. "James Castle's drawings and paintings confirm that art offers a fundamental way to know ourselves," said the museum's director Betsy Broun in a statement. "He worked for decades in the rural west, surrounded by family but with little experience beyond his community and with no formal art training. But his discerning eye found subjects all around, creating an extended portrait of his world."

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. Castle would often depict familiar landscapes—such as his boyhood farm home—with disruptions in the middle. Scholars have dubbed the monolithic forms in his work "totems," but aren't sure of their meaning. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper and soot. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. Castle couldn't read or write, but his artwork shows a fascination with texts. The grouping of letters here seems to recall a method for teaching pronunciation that Castle might have been exposed to while at school. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. Castle often played with kaleidoscopes, which influenced his use of shape. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, color of unknown origin. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper and soot. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, string. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, color of unknown origin. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, string, and wood. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper and color of unknown origin. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper and color of unknown origin. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot, string. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian American Art Museum. James Castle, Untitled, n.d., found paper, soot. (original image)

Born two months premature on September 25, 1899, to rural postmasters who ran a general store out of the living room of their home in Garden Valley, Idaho, Castle grew up in the shrinking world of the pioneer frontier.  From the ages of 10 to 15, he attended the Gooding School for the Deaf and Blind, where he was taught an oral method of communication—not sign language. And with no formal art training he worked virtually unknown for the first 40 years of his life before the art world discovered him. But by 1964, Castle was being described as the "most important primitive since Grandma Moses," by the director of the Portland Art Museum, whose style "reminds us of Van Gogh."

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Untitled: The Art of James Castle

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Castle created his work using found objects: paper from his parent's post office, cardboard from matchboxes, soot from the wood stove mixed with saliva to create a kind of charcoal ink. He was profoundly productive, crafting works at a near constant rate for almost his entire life. Many of his drawings are on the back of used envelopes, or used pieces of paper or even on the interior of an unfolded matchbox (in the slideshow above, the images with slots in the sides are done on such a medium). His works largely reflects the rural landscape that surrounded him for his entire life: after leaving Garden Valley as a young man in 1924 (and moving first to Star, Idaho and then to Boise), his illustrations often recalled the farmyard of his Garden Valley home. Castle's works are all undated, but any surviving artwork is thought to date from after 1931, when he moved to Boise, meaning that landscapes which recall his boyhood homes must have all been painted from memory. Many of Castle's works also explore the idea of text, which seemed to fascinate Castle in spite of his reputed illiteracy. 

"At once inviting and inscrutable, Castle's art gives us access to a world navigated without language, though not the key to unlock it," says Bell. "Ultimately, grappling with these drawings reveals the limits of our understanding as well as one artist's extraordinary vision of the ordinary."

When Large Birds Disappear, Rainforests Suffer

Smithsonian Magazine

Large birds like the toucanet play important roles in dispersing big seeds in the Amazon. Photo by Edson Endrigo

Think of an ecosystem as a Jenga pillar. Each piece–microbes, birds, trees, insects, animals, fungi–comes together to form the larger, intertwined structure. Maybe you can knock out a Jenga block or two, but tamper with those components enough and the system will collapse. As ecologists well know, small changes in the environment–cutting down a few patches of forest, causing a local species to go extinct–can create cascading and potentially disastrous effects on the broader environment.

Like a teetering Jenga tower, predicting which of those changes will most significantly reverberate in the complex natural world is nearly impossible. So we wait to see the consequences. Today, an international team of researchers just identified a pointed example of one such fatal tinkering. In Brazil’s damaged Atlantic forest, the absence of large birds has caused seeds to shrink and become weaker, in turn threatening the forest’s future.

A channel billed toucan perched on a forest palm. Photo by Lindolfo Souto

The story began more than a century ago, they found. Local people began hacking away at the Atlantic forest, which once covered more than 400,000 square miles of Brazil’s coast. Agricultural and livestock fields, as well as growing urban centers, divided swaths of jungle, creating isolated patches of green. By the time people realized there was value in keeping the forest around, nearly 90 percent of it had been lost. Much of what remains today occurs in isolated, random pockets, though those patches still represent some of the world’s most biodiverse forests.

When a forest becomes divided, like the Atlantic forest did, wildlife often loses its ability to disperse from one patch of trees to another. Larger species may not be able to survive in some of the smaller, resource-scarce patches, and hunters can more easily track down animals if they’re confined to a smaller area. This turned out to be the case for some large birds that once made their home throughout the Atlantic forest, including toucans and toucanets–prized for their brilliant plumage, the birds are a favorite of hunters.

Significantly, these birds’ big beaks–which open up more than half an inch, on average–make them key players in distributing larger seeds throughout the jungle. Smaller birds can’t swallow or fit those big seeds into their beaks, meaning the toucans and toucanets carry nearly sole responsibility for regenerating the jungle with new seedlings of several plant species.

Seed size variation from a single species of forest palm. Photo by Marina Côrtes

The authors of this new study, published in Science, compared the size of more than 9,000 seeds from 22 palm plant populations–a major tree type in the Atlantic forest, several species of which are threatened. Some of the seeds came from robust patches of forest with lots of large birds, while others came from smaller patches where those birds have long been missing. In those smaller patches, they found, seeds of palm plants were significantly smaller.

The researchers also used statistical models to independently evaluate 13 different environmental variables, including soil type and climate, to find out whether they could have driven the size difference seen in the seeds instead. None of the other factors could explain the difference, suggesting birds–the primary transport mechanism for large seeds–as the most likely culprit. Additional genetic analyses indicated that, in the smaller forest patches, seeds most likely began shrinking about 100 years ago, or right around the time that coffee and sugar cane plantations began to boom. Human activities a century ago, the authors conclude, likely drove a rapid evolutionary change in the forest palms’ seed size.

When the birds disappear, the larger seeds do not get distributed throughout the forest. Only the smaller ones wind up in new plots of earth, which in turn sprout into more trees that produce smaller seeds. Gradually, the forest becomes dominated by smaller seed-producing trees.

Shrinking seed size is no small detail for forest palms. The larger the seed, the more nutrients that are packed in to give the seedling the best possible chances of survival in the tough jungle ecosystem. Prior research has found that forest palms that began life as smaller seeds are smaller on average after a year of growth than those that came from larger seeds, meaning that the runty plants are more likely to lose out to competition with other species. Smaller seeds are also more prone to drying out. Given that climate models predict hotter temperatures and longer periods of drought for South America in the coming years, this could be a serious problem for smaller-seeded forest palms’ survival.

If palms start dying out throughout the Atlantic forest, researchers have no idea what will happen to the tens of thousands of species that take shelter in the ecological web the plants help to maintain–a web that includes more than 11,000 threatened plants and animals. For those smaller jungle patches, the authors speculate, the choices long-dead humans made may lead to complete collapse of some of the world’s most diverse sections of rainforest. Like a real-life game of Jenga, those birds could prove to be the key piece that causes the entire jungle system to fall down.

How Fly Guts Are Helping Researchers Catalog the Rainforest

Smithsonian Magazine

Torrey Rodgers forges through the Panamanian rainforest, holding a bucket of rotting pork. The wildlife scientist is on a mission to collect flies—hundreds and hundreds of them, if he’s lucky. Far from jungle pests, he sees these buzzing, iridescent green insects as helpful lab assistants, ennabling him to take stock of the inhabitants of threatened rainforests around the globe. 

One way to measure the health of a forest is to tally up its biodiversity, or the richness of plants and animals that teem within. Scientists embark on this kind of forest census to monitor poaching or chart the progress of conservation efforts. But rainforests pose a particular challenge: You have to trek miles through dense greenery, searching for elusive animals that may only come out at night and, oh yeah, they're full of things that can kill you. 

That’s why it’s usually done by ecologists who are well versed in the jungle ecosystem and the fauna who live there. These zoologists know how to navigate the untamed land, accurately identify diurnal and nocturnal creatures and place covert camera traps to photograph the most elusive wildlife. The trouble is, these kinds of forest-trekking, fauna-knowing experts are as rare as the wildlife they track.

And without such a census, conservation efforts are futile. “Say you propose a nature reserve, and you put tons of resources into protecting this area...well did any of that actually work? Are we losing species or having a positive impact?” asks Rodgers, a research associate in Utah State University's Department of Wildland Resources.

That’s why Rodgers has enlisted some unlikely helpers to do his wildlife surveying for him: carrion flies. For these scavengers, the rainforest is a vast buffet, featuring dishes from carcasses to festering wounds on living animals to every imaginable type of poop. Every bite logs a distinct DNA sample of that meal in the flies’ guts, until it comes out the other end. Now, as Rodgers and his colleagues report in a recent study in the journal Molecular Ecology Resources, researchers can use that DNA to build a census of jungle’s most elusive mammals.   

Owen McMillan, an evolutionary biologist at the Smithsonian’s Tropical Research Institute (STRI) in Panama who was a co-author on the study, recognizes that Rodger’s scheme to capture the diversity of an entire rainforest using only fly guts is unorthodox. “It may sound harebrained,” he says, “but it’s not if you think about the way these flies make a living.”

As airborne foragers, this family of flies can sample virtually any type of rainforest animal. Every organism’s DNA is present in all of its biological matter, from blood to poop, and provides an identifiable genetic marker. If researchers could somehow sample all the DNA within a rainforest, they’d have a complete picture of everything living there. “That’s where the flies come in handy,” Rodgers says. “They go out and do the sampling for us.” 

In 2015, Rodgers journeyed down to Barro Colorado Island, a densely forested island in the middle of the Panama Canal, and put his fly survey idea to the test. He fashioned 16 simple fly traps out of two plastic water bottles, connected like an hourglass. Each one contained a morsel of pork as bait, which was kept mostly out of reach of the flies by a screen. 

After a few unsuccessful trials, Rodgers learned that the flies were picky eaters. They preferred meat that had been left in the sun until it reached that sweet spot of just-rancid funk. “They’ll come to rotting meat really quickly,” he says, “I had to pre-rot it which was pretty disgusting.”

Once he had figured out the flies’ dietary preferences, the traps began filling up with imprisoned flies so quickly he had to empy them twice a day. Unfortunately for them, attempting to feast on the rotting pork would prove to be a fatal mistake: Rodgers brought them back to the lab, flash froze them, snipped them into chunks and ground them into a paste to enable extracting the DNA from within their guts.

To detect even the rarest animals in the flies' guts, he would need to use a DNA amplification technique to multiply special regions from only the ingested mammal cells. The goal was to pick out certain molecular markers, which are regions in the genome that serve as barcodes. Those short fragments can be matched against a database of over 5,000 mammals, and a smaller database of species known to exist on the island. 

He collected more than 1,000 flies over the course of three months, amassing enough gut DNA data to compare against eight years of traditional surveys previously collected on the island. Just as Rodgers predicted, the flies got around; the researchers detected 20 mammal species, four birds species and one lizard species. “It was surprisingly accurate,” McMillan says. “At least as accurate as walking through the forest.” 

Not only that, but the data was far richer than the previous surveys because DNA sequencing generates millions of data points. “You still have to filter out things that are essentially noise ... like pork,” McMillan says. But once filtered, the mammal DNA fragments amplified from fly guts closely mirrored the species composition expected in the rainforest on Barro Colorado Island.

There were, however, a few notable exceptions. Curiously, they didn’t find barcodes that matched the three most abundant mammals: there was no trace of the rodentine agouti, the raccoon-like white-nosed coati, or the brocket, which looks like a squat relative of deer. Rodgers believes this has to do with his lab assistants’ inherent bias. The agouti’s scat, for instance, isn’t particularly appetizing to flies. “It’s really hard and maybe more difficult and less appealing,” he says.

Conrad Gillett, an entomologist at the University of Hawai’i who also uses molecular techniques to study insect guts, agreed that that fly dietary habits could be a considerable bias. Other studies have used bugs like mosquitoes and dung beetles, Gillett’s insect of choice, and could be added to rainforest surveys to increase the diversity mammals detected. 

Still, this is a quick and effective method for surveying diversity that could be employed in many environments, says Gillett. “It’s definitely something that’s worth investigating,” Gillett says. “Right now I’m not sure if [flies] can be relied upon exclusively for a survey, but as an adjunct, absolutely. It’s something that has to be considered.” The technique’s simplicity makes it even more appealing. “It’s just hanging pork in the forest,” McMillan says. 

After trying this survey method in a well-studied forest, McMillan hopes the approach could be used in other settings where the fauna are still a mystery. This will present another challenge: Unlike on Barro Colorado, many forests are filled with animals that have yet to be named, let alone assigned a DNA barcode. But as DNA barcoding becomes more common and databases grow, researchers believe they’ll be able to detect even the rare species that are hard to track from a conservation perspective. 

“Because Barro Colorado Island has been studied so well by so many scientists for so long, you can put it into the broader context,” McMillan says. 

Better yet, there isn’t a threatened forest on Earth that doesn’t have flies. “This group of flies is present worldwide. They’re common in every single habitat,” Rodgers says. Thanks to these creative scientists and their harebrained idea, we may need to consider these ubiquitous insects as not merely pesky nuisances, but as valuable conservationists in their own right.

First Aid Kit, Lockheed Sirius "Tingmissartoq", Lindbergh

National Air and Space Museum
A metal box with half of a red T on the top. The top swings open on hinges placed on two sides.

This first aid kit was among the supplies Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, took on their 1931 flight to the Orient and 1933 survey flights across the North and South Atlantic. Since they were traveling over vast expanses of uninhabited territory where medical attention would be hard to find, even a small injury could have been fatal. Always meticulous planners, Charles and Anne considered this and took a first aid kit to treat small wounds.

In December 1933, during the latter part of their survey flights around the Atlantic, the Lindberghs made several unsuccessful takeoff attempts for their flight from Africa to South America as calm winds and seas would not allow their heavily loaded plane to rise. This first aid kit was among the supplies they removed and shipped home from Bathurst, Gambia so they could lighten their load and continue.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smithsonian Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smithsonian Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

h/t The Guardian

Crowds Are Much Smarter Than We Suspected

Smithsonian Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smithsonian Magazine

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

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

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2.    Monsters Are Real

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

3.    Fear at the Freer

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

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

4.    Ghoulish Gardens

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

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

5.    Sandra Cisneros exhibit

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

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

6.    Day of the Dead Celebration

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

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

7. Virtual Celebrations of Day of the Dead

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

Cans, Malted Milk Lunch Tablets, Lockheed Sirius "Tingmissartoq", Lindbergh

National Air and Space Museum
Twenty two (22) painted, labeled metal food cans

These cans of "Horlick's Malted Milk Lunch Tablets" were among the provisions Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, took on their 1933 survey flights across the North and South Atlantic. Made of dried milk, malted barley, and wheat flour, milk tablets were popular with soldiers and travelers in the 1930s because they did not need to be refrigerated and, according to their label, they could sustain a normal person for twenty-four hours. They must have tasted reasonably good as well, since Charles and Anne took twenty two cans with them on their 1933 trip.

Lodging and meals were provided at the Lindberghs' planned stops, but they still had to consider what they would eat in case of an emergency landing. Since they were traveling over vast expanses of uninhabited territory, an emergency landing would have likely put them hundreds of miles away from the nearest outpost. Always meticulous planners, Charles and Anne considered this possibility and took enough canned rations to last them several weeks. They could have lasted eleven days on Horlick's Milk Tablets alone.

In December 1933, during the latter part of their trip, the Lindberghs made several unsuccessful takeoff attempts for their flight from Africa to South America as calm winds and seas would not allow their heavily loaded plane to rise. Malted milk tablets were among the supplies they removed and shipped home from Bathurst, Gambia so they could lighten their load and continue. Charles reasoned that if he and Anne crashed in the Atlantic Ocean, they would not want a lot of dry food which would make them thirsty. They would need more water and less to eat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14 Fun Facts About Parrots

Smithsonian Magazine

After dogs, cats and fish, birds are America’s fourth favorite pet. An estimated 14 million birds live in captivity across the United States, a great many of them parrots. And no wonder: With their captivating colors, acrobatic antics and often silly personalities, these avian characters are hard to resist.

Pet parrots can be incredible if demanding friends, but for people more accustomed to fluffy mammalian companions, they can present some unexpected challenges. The long-lived, intelligent and highly social birds need especially high amounts of attention and enrichment, or else they can pick up bad habits and find themselves bored and stressed to the point where they pluck out their own feathers.

While some pet parrots come from breeders, trade in exotic parrots is big business around the globe, and it contributes significantly to their decline in the wild. Thankfully trafficking in wild birds has been less of a problem in the U.S. since the passage of the 1992 Wild Bird Conservation Act and CITES restrictions on importing exotic species.

Now, in honor of the 14th annual National Bird Day, get a little bird-brained with these 14 facts about parrots:

1. Some Parrots Grind Their Own Calcium Supplements

As a famous research subject, the African grey parrot Alex was said to have the intelligence of a human 5-year-old. Now the psittacine tribe can claim another brainy feat: tool use. Researchers at the University of York and the University of St. Andrews observed captive greater vasa parrots (Coracopsis vasa) using date pits and pebbles to pulverize cockle shells. Male vasas ate the powder and then offered a regurgitated calcium-rich snack to females before mating. Be thankful you get chocolates.

2. Parrot Toes Are Zygodactyl

Like most other birds, parrots have four toes per foot. But instead of the usual three-in-front-one-behind arrangement, parrot toes are configured for maximum grip: two in front and two behind, like two pairs of opposable thumbs. Combined with beaks that can crack even the world’s toughest nuts, their unique feet make them formidable eaters, not to mention dexterous climbers.

3. Polly Wants Mutton, Too

Many parrots are omnivores and will eat pretty much anything—fruit, seeds, nuts, insects and even meat. Some species, like the rainbow-colored lories and lorikeets of the South Pacific, feed almost exclusively on nectar with brush-tipped tongues, though recently even these birds were seen eating meat at feeding stations in Australia. In New Zealand, native kea (Nestor species) were first observed attacking and killing sheep in 1868 and were persecuted as sheep-killers until 1986, when they were granted protected status.

4. Not All Parrots Are Tropical

Of the roughly 350 known species of parrots, most live in the tropical and subtropical regions of Australia, Asia, Central and South America and Africa. But some parrots break that geographic mold. Keas live in alpine regions of New Zealand and nest in ground burrows, while the endangered maroon-fronted parrot (Rhynchopsitta terrisi) dwells at 6,000 feet in the Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains of Mexico. 

A popular pet, the African grey parrot is at risk in the wild. (Dodge65/iStock)

5. A Third of the World's Parrots Face Extinction

Due to a combination of habitat destruction and persistent poaching for the pet trade, more species regularly land on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. A November study, for instance, found that logging has decimated 99 percent of the African grey (Psittacus erithacus) population in Ghana, threatening wild numbers of one of the most iconic parrot species.

6. Parrots Usually Match Their Mates

With a couple of notable exceptions, males and females of most parrot species look virtually identical. It takes a keen eye—and usually a lab test—to tell a boy bird from a girl bird. But some species, like the Solomon Island eclectus (Eclectus roratus), are so different that for many years people thought they were distinct species of birds. Males are bright emerald green with flame-colored beaks, while females top off their crimson and royal blue ensembles with black beaks and a bright scarlet head.

7. Parrots Taste With the Tops of Their Beaks

Though parrots do have some taste glands at the backs of their throats, most of their 300 or so taste buds are located on the roofs of their mouths. Compared with the 10,000 taste buds in a human mouth, the birds' palate may not seem like much, but parrots do show definite preferences for certain foods.

8. The Heftiest Parrot Weighs as Much as a Cat

Parrots cover an incredible range of shapes and sizes. The tiny buff-faced pygmy (Micropsitta pusio) weighs a mere ounce and is about the size of an adult human’s finger. The world’s longest parrot is the brilliant hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus), checking in at nearly 3.5 feet from tip to tail. But New Zealand’s flightless, nocturnal kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) wins for weight: A fully grown male can register as much as nine pounds—the average weight of an adult housecat.

9. Your Pet Parrot May Outlive You

Many parrots have near-human lifespans, a consideration many people don’t truly grasp when seeking a parrot as a companion. Larger species like macaws and cockatoos are known to live for between 35 and 50 years. Tarbu, an African grey in England, lived to the ripe old age of 55. The current oldest parrot is 82-year-old Cookie, a Major Mitchell’s cockatoo (Lophochroa leadbeateri) that resides at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. 

Feathers from the scarlet macaw must be full of psittacofulvins. (Roberto A Sanchez/iStock)

10. Parrot Feathers Contain Antibacterial Pigments

A parrot’s brilliant plumage has a special defense against damage: Psittacofulvins, a bacteria-resistant pigment that only parrots are known to produce, give the birds' feathers their red, yellow and green coloration. In a 2011 study in Biology Letters, researchers exposed different colors of feathers to a feather-damaging bacteria strain and found that the pigments helped protect the glorious plumage from degradation.

11. Some Parrots Migrate

Though most species occupy a home range throughout the year, the swift parrot (Lathamus discolor) and the orange-bellied parrot (Neophema chrysogaster) are known to migrate each year across the Bass Strait between Australia and Tasmania. Both species are critically endangered.

12. The World Record Holder Knew More Than 1,700 Words

Though parrots are generally famous for being chatty, Puck, a cheery blue parakeet, landed in the 1995 Guinness Book of World Records for his vocabulary skills, with a recognized set of 1,728 words. In addition to speaking, Amazon parrots are renowned singers, including Groucho, who entertained TV audiences with a rendition of “How Much is that Doggie in the Window” in 2010.

13. The Black Palm Is the Panda of Parrots

Native to rainforests in the South Pacific, the black palm cockatoo is one of the most difficult birds to breed and raise in captivity. Chicks often die around one year of age—even wild pairs have difficulty successfully rearing chicks. The causes for their reproductive troubles are still unknown but may be related to their photosensitive skin, which reacts to natural sunlight.

14. A Parrot-Proof Tracker Is on the Horizon

Little is known about wild parrot behavior, in part because the canopy-dwelling birds are hard to see and follow. Also, GPS-tracking studies of parrots are extremely uncommon, since the birds are adept at removing foreign objects from their bodies. But a 2015 study published in The Auk might help scientists better track these elusive animals. By encasing GPS trackers in bite-proof plastic, the researchers were able to track a group of keas in New Zealand without any obvious ill effects on the birds.

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