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Probiotics Exist Thanks to a Man Who Drank Cholera

Smithsonian Magazine

Sometimes it seems like everything in the dairy aisle at the supermarket wants to fix your guts. If you put on a blindfold and picked something off the shelf at random, the chances are pretty good that whatever you grabbed would have the word “probiotic” emblazoned somewhere on the packaging. And it’s all thanks to a man who once drank a glass of cholera for science.

Ilya Metchnikoff, a researcher working in TK, was obsessed with figuring out how the immune system works. Back in the late 19th century, the accepted theory was that white blood cells actually aided bodily infections by creating an environment friendly to invading microbes and helping them spread. But by comparing the immune responses of animals like starfish to the human immune system, Metchnikoff proved that white blood cells were fighting on the front lines against infection, writes Lina Zeldovich for Nautilus. His discovery shattered traditional conventions of medical science and won him the 1908 Nobel Prize.

Metchnikoff discovered all sorts of things that now form the foundations of our understanding of the human body, but during his life, much of his work was considered radical. “A lot of the things he did were very prescient,” Siamon Gordon, professor emeritus of cellular pathology at the University of Oxford told Zeldovich. “Right now several of his ‘crazy’ ideas are absolutely mainstream.”

Which brings us to 1892. A cholera epidemic was sweeping in France, and Metchnikoff was struggling to understand why the disease struck some people and not others. To do so, he sucked down a drink full of cholera. He never got sick, so he let a volunteer drink some as well. When that volunteer failed to get sick as well, Metchnikoff offered the drink to a second test subject. That man, however, didn't fare so well. He got cholera and nearly died. 

From there, Metchnikoff went to the lab. Zeldovich writes:

When Metchnikoff took his experiments into the petri dish to find out what caused such a marked difference, he discovered that some microbes hindered the cholera growth while others stimulated it. He then proposed that the bacteria of the human intestinal flora played a part in disease prevention. And, he reasoned, if swallowing a pathogenic bacterial culture sickened you, then swallowing a beneficial one would make you healthier. Therefore, he decided, the proper alteration of the intestinal flora could help battle diseases that had plagued humans for centuries.

Once again, however, Metchnikoff ran up against mainstream science. A popular theory of the time was that the large intestine was a reservoir for noxious bacteria and was itself the source of most stomach problems. At least one surgeon recommended that people suffering from digestive issues have the whole thing removed. But Metchnikoff was convinced by his work that gut problems could be healed by restoring balance to the a person’s microbiome. He began experimenting with different microbial cultures, especially one that was popular for yogurt-making in Eastern Europe, and discovered that some types of microbes did in fact aid people with stomach problems.

Metchnikoff's theories never gained prominence during his lifetime, writes Zeldovich, there was one notable exception: a small company in Barcelona that started marketing yogurt as medicine in 1910. A few years later, the company expanded to the United States, where it was branded “Dannon.”

Metchnikoff died in 1916, long before he could see his fringe ideas become the foundations for a mainstream juggernaut. Research into probiotics is a multi-billion dollar industry and supermarket shelves are packed with cultured milk products like yogurt and kefir. But despite all the hype and branding, yogurts do actually contain some bacteria that is good for our bodies. And it’s thanks to a man brave enough to drink some cholera that we can reap its benefits today.

What Was Found Inside the Oldest American Time Capsule

Smithsonian Magazine

Back on July 4, 1795, none other than midnight-rider Paul Revere and Samuel Adams, who was then Massachusetts' governor, laid a time capsule in the Massachusetts State House in Boston. The event was a big to-do. Fifteen white horses (one for each state of the union) pulled the capsule to the ceremony, where a 15-gun salute accompanied its entombment within a cornerstone by Revere, Adams and fellow revolutionary William Scollay.*

In December 2014, the capsule was re-discovered by workers attempting to fix a water leak. Historians debated whether or not it should be removed, but the fact that water was seeping into that part of the building ultimately cinched it. To ensure preservation of its contents, it was decided that the time capsule would be opened.

There was an initial fear that the capsule’s contents hadn’t survived the centuries, particularly because the whole thing had been opened once before—in 1855, while repairs were done to the State House. At the time, 19th century “preservationists” had reportedly washed most of the capsule’s items in acid. However, they also enclosed all of the materials in a brass box—a more reliable vessel for the collection than the two heavy sheets of lead originally used. 

To the delight of historians, an x-ray performed last month suggested that the enclosed materials—thought to include paper and coins—were intact.

The 10-pound capsule was finally opened last night at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in front of a crowd of press and history enthusiasts, after Pam Hatchfield, the museum's Head of Objects Conservation, spent about five hours delicately loosening the screws that held down the lid. Inside, conservators found a well-preserved collection of Revolutionary-era artifacts, as well as some dating to the first opening in 1855.

*This sentence was updated for accuracy—it originally stated the horses pulled a brass box, but the brass box came later.

A curator handles a silver plaque taken from the time capsule. (Rick Friedman/

There were over a dozen coins, including a one-shilling piece from 1652, as well as a half-cent, a 3-cent, a dime, a “quar. dol” and a half-dollar coin. A Saturday morning paper and the Boston Traveler newspaper (priced at 2 cents) were discovered in readable condition.

Also within: The title page of the first volume of the Massachusetts Colony Records, a paper impression of the Seal of the Commonwealth, a medal depicting George Washington and a silver plaque commemorating the erection of the State House. Conservationists will be hard at work over the coming months working to preserve the materials and record their details.

It has been a pretty good year for American time capsules: In September, a 113 year-old capsule was discovered inside the head of a golden lion statue perched at the top of the Massachusetts State House. But not all that is buried is particularly old: in October, the 200th birthday of Perryopilis, Penn., was commemorated by opening a capsule originally sealed in 1976.

What Happens to All the Salt We Dump On the Roads?

Smithsonian Magazine

As much of the country endures from the heavy snowfall and bitter cold that has marked the start of 2014, municipalities in 26 states will rely on a crucial tool in clearing their roads: salt.

Because the freezing point of salty water is a lower temperature than pure water, scattering some salt atop ice or snow can help accelerate the melting process, opening up the roads to traffic that much sooner. It's estimated that more than 22 million tons of salt are scattered on the roads of the U.S. annually—about 137 pounds of salt for every American.

But all that salt has to go somewhere. After it dissolves—and is split into sodium and chloride ions—it gets carried away via runoff and deposited into both surface water (streams, lakes and rivers) and the groundwater under our feet.

Consider how easily salt can corrode your car. Unsurprisingly, it's also a problem for the surrounding environment—so much that in 2004, Canada categorized road salt as a toxin and placed new guidelines on its use. And as more and more of the U.S. becomes urbanized and suburbanized, and as a greater number of roads criss-cross the landscape, the mounting piles of salt we dump on them may be getting to be a bigger problem than ever.

Data from long-term studies of watersheds bear this out. A group of scientists that tracked salt levels from 1952 to 1998 in the Mohawk River in Upstate New York, for instance, found that concentrations of sodium and chloride increased by 130 and 243 percent, respectively, with road salting the primary reason as the surround area became more developed. More recently, a study of a stream in southeastern New York State that was monitored from 1986 to 2005 found a similar pattern, with significant annual increases and road salting to blame for an estimated 91 percent of sodium chloride in the watershed.

Because it's transported more easily than sodium, chloride is the greater concern, and in total, an estimated 40 percent of the country's urban streams have chloride levels that exceed safe guidelines for aquatic life, largely because of road salt.

Salt collects and dries on a road. (Via arbyreed.)

This chloride can occasionally impact human water use, mostly because some penetrates into the groundwater we tap for drinking purposes. Water utilities most frequently report complaints of salty drinking water during the winter, when chloride concentrations are likely to exceed 250 parts per million (ppm), our tastebuds' threshold for detecting it. This is an especially big issue for people on salt restrictive diets. Overall, though, road salt-laced drinking water isn't a widespread problem: A 2009 USGS study found that fewer than 2 percent of the drinking wells sampled had chloride levels that surpassed federal standards.

Road salt pollution is generally a bigger issue for the surrounding environment and the organisms that live in it. It's estimated that chloride concentrations above 800 ppm are harmful to most freshwater aquatic organisms—because these high levels interfere with how animals regulate the uptake of salt into their bodies—and for short periods after a snow melt, wetlands nearby highways can surpass these levels. A range of studies has found that chloride from road salt can negatively impact the survival rates of crustaceans, amphibians such as salamanders and frogs, fish, plants and other organisms. There's even some evidence that it could hasten invasions of non-native plant species—in one marsh by the Massachusetts Turnpike, a study found that it aided the spread of salt-tolerant invasives.

On a broader scale, elevated salt concentrations can reduce water circulation in lakes and ponds (because salt affects water's density), preventing oxygen from reaching bottom layers of water. It can also interfere with a body of water's natural chemistry, reducing the overall nutrient load. On a smaller scale, highly concentrated road salt can dehydrate and kill trees and plants growing next to roadways, creating desert conditions because the plants have so much more difficulty absorbing water. In some cases, dried salt crystals can attract deer and moose to busy roads, increasing their chance of becoming roadkill.

How can we avoid killing trees and making roadkill of deer while de-icing the roads? Recently, in some areas, transportation departments have begun pursuing strategies to reduce salt use. Salting before a storm, instead of after, can prevent snow and ice from binding to the asphalt, making the post-storm cleanup a little bit easier and allowing road crews to use less salt overall. Mixing the salt with slight amounts of water allows it to spread more, and blending in sand or gravel lets it to stick more easily and improve traction for cars.

Elsewhere, municipalities are trying out alternate de-icing compounds. Over the past few years, beet juice, sugarcane molasses and cheese brine, among other substances, have been mixed in with salt to reduce the overall chloride load on the environment. These don't eliminate the need for conventional salt, but they could play a role in cutting down just how much we dump on the roads.

Take Three Zucchinis and Call Me in the Morning: The Power of Produce Prescriptions

Smithsonian Magazine

Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit founded by chef Michel Nischan, is renowned in social justice circles for its success in bringing healthy food to those who need it most. The organization pioneered the idea of doubling the value of SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps) when recipients use them to purchase locally grown fruits and vegetables, which is now commonplace across the country.

Less known is that for the last six years, Wholesome Wave has worked quietly on an equally ambitious initiative: getting healthcare providers to write prescriptions for produce, rather than just pills. It’s called FVRx (Fruit and Vegetable Rx) and its ready to storm the nation—starting with downtown LA.

Target, the national retail chain, has sponsored the biggest FVRx program to date, in which more than 500 families who receive healthcare services at the Eisner Pediatric and Family Medical Center in Los Angeles are now receiving produce prescriptions from their doctor, along with vouchers to purchase fresh produce at Target stores and nearby farmers markets.

Who FVRx Serves

All of the participating families are living at or below the poverty line, and a quarter of the children are over the 85th Body Mass Index percentile, which classifies them as overweight or obese. The vast majority of families who are enrolled are already receiving SNAP benefits, which provide about $4 per person per day for food. For a family of four, the FVRx program adds another $4 per day, which must be spent exclusively on fresh produce.

Shoppers visit the Central Avenue Farmer's Market in Los Angeles. (Mpu Dinani)

Folks with limited financial resources tend to spend their food budget on the cheapest possible calories. But unfortunately, the cheapest calories often come from highly processed foods that are low in nutrients and are high in sugar, unhealthy fats, preservatives, and other substances the human body isn’t designed for. A bowl of Fruit Loops will fill you up in the morning for a fraction of the cost of all-natural yogurt, blueberries and whole-wheat bread. Which is why the United States spends about $500 billion per year treating diet-related illness and disease.

Diabetes, one of the biggest, costliest diet-related health problems, is directly related to childhood obesity, for example. FVRx gives doctors, who are by nature more focused on treating medical conditions than on preventing them, a new tool to fight it. Rather than watch helplessly as a child grows up overweight, and then one day is forced to begin insulin therapy as a diabetic, the hope is to get kids hooked on healthy food long before the first signs of illness appear.

A doctor sees a program participant at LA's Eisner Pediatric Center. (Mpu Dinani)

Why It's Working

The idiom, Eat your vegetables! has been so beaten into American culture as to be meaningless. But most folks do what their doctor tells them to, especially if the instructions are given as a prescription. Julia Pon, vice president of programs at Wholesome Wave, says that’s exactly the magical power of the FVRx program. It’s not nutritional advice, it’s a command.

“Healthcare professionals tell us they are always recommending changes in diet, and yet it’s so exasperating to counsel people with pre-diabetic children about eating more fruits and vegetables and then they see them again six months later and nothing has changed,” says Pon. “But the doctors in this program tell us how powerful it is to literally be able to write a prescription. One of the doctors in LA said to me, ‘instead of Lipitor [a drug used to treat cardiovascular disease], I am literally prescribing carrots and cucumbers and green beans’.”

Wholesome Wave has previously piloted FVRx in several locations, including Minneapolis, New York City, and the Navajo Nation in Arizona, though the LA program, which touches more than 2,500 residents of an Hispanic neighborhood in central Los Angeles, is the largest so far. Over the last six years since FVRx was first developed, it has been streamlined into a “simple, but successful” formula, says Pon.

The crucial ingredients are a neighborhood-based healthcare center, which serves as the point of contact with individuals in need; food providers, which are typically a combination of local retail stores (for ease of access) and farmers markets (for more produce variety and a greater connection to where the food comes from); and a third entity that provides health and diet counseling and other services aimed it fostering the skills and habits of healthy eating.

A child grabs a strawberry at the Central Avenue Farmer's Market in LA. (Mpu Dinani)

For the Los Angeles FVRx program, a local organization called Groceryships, which describes itself as a “scholarship program” for healthy eating, provided a nutritional education course for a portion of the participants. Eisner also offered classes, which were required in order to receive the vouchers. The classes include cooking demonstrations, Spanish-language children’s cookbooks, field trips to the farmers market, and tour of the produce section at a nearby Target—“Target has more produce than most people think,” says Pon.

Becky Murphy, vice president of clinical services at Eisner, says the response has been overwhelming, with far more interest than the funding for the current seven-month program, which is set to expire this month, can provide.

“Our patients are thrilled with the program. We are already seeing that the participants are increasing the number of fruits and vegetables they’re eating every day and decreasing the amount of sugar in their diet. One of our clients went to the farmers market with her kids and let them pick out whatever fruit they wanted, and then they went home and made popsicles with each one of their fruits. So it’s a great way for the kids to try different things.”

Proof Points

At the end of the program, participants will be evaluated on their progress. In previous iterations of the FVRx program, Wholesome Wave found that 69 percent of participants increase fruit and vegetable consumption and 45 percent decreased their BMI. In addition, food security in participating households improved by 45 percent.

As of early December, the 544 participating families in Los Angeles had spent $150,000 worth of vouchers, half of that at local farmers markets, a significant boon to area farmers. It’s part of a larger $40 million commitment by Target to address the health needs of children and families across the country this year. The company estimates that more than 225,000 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables will be purchased by the conclusion of the program.

Pon says Target’s involvement raises hopes that FVRx will soon expand nationwide. “One thing about having a major retailer like Target at the table as not only the funder but also a program partner, is that they were able to provide vouchers in the form a scannable card that works through their POS system, and is co-branded with the farmers markets, so they can redeem the vouchers there as well. The system was built to be replicated.”

While Target has not yet made a firm commitment to continue, Jennifer Silberman, the company’s director of corporate social responsibility, said in a statement emailed to Modern Farmer, that “we are excited to assess the results of this program and learn how best to replicate and scale it. We’re in the process of solidifying our 2017 strategies and look forward to sharing them in the future.”

If they follow through, FVRx may revolutionize fresh food access across the nation, and help to put a dent in that $500 billion medical bill.

More stories from Modern Farmer:

This article originally appeared on Modern Farmer.

That Time When Custer Stole a Horse

Smithsonian Magazine
The theft of a prize-winning stallion gave the famous general a glimpse of a future that could have been

Jasmine Skies by Sita Brahmachari

Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program
When she made her Stateside debut last year in Sita Brahmachari‘s Mira in the Present Tense (titled Artichoke Hearts in the original...

The Secret Place (Dublin Murder Squad 5) by Tana French

Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program
“One road and two extra-high walls” separate St. Kilda’s and St. Colm’s, two privileged, private schools for girls and boys, respectively....

My Building, My Community

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
In this lesson plan, students explore the community outside their classroom walls. They take photos of buildings in the neighborhood and re-create a building using geometric shapes.

An Organized Legal Campaign

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Online exhibit shows how leaders of the Howard University law school and the Legal Defense Fund of the NAACP prepared to fight segregation in the nation's public schools. An Organized Legal Campaign is the third section of the online exhibition entitled Separate is Not Equal: Brown v. Board of Education. Targets grades 6-12.

Azucar! The Life and Music of Celia Cruz: Printable Exhibition

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Printable edition of the online exhibit Azucar! The Life and Music of Celia Cruz. Celia Cruz is an influential and legendary musical figure both in her native country of Cuba and in the United States. Visitors can connect her story to a variety of subjects including immigration, history, geography, music theory, music history, and art. Available in English and Spanish. Targets grades 6-12

Collars, Curtains & Kings: Exploring the History of Lace (9-12)

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Activity teaching students about lace. Explores the history of lace, how lace is made, where lace is made, and the role of lace in women's lives.

Fly, Fly Away

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Teacher-created lesson in which students use everyday materials to design and build a kite--one that is based on their research into kites through history. After testing the kite, they "go back to the drawing board" to improve on it.

History and Culture Books, Catalogs, and Posters from SITES

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Choose from a selection of books and posters for purchase made in conjunction with SITES traveling exhibitions. Historical and cultural topics range from the American presidency to contemporary China and Latin Jazz.

The Sound of an Island: Jamaican Music for the Classroom

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Students will be introduced to the music and history of Jamaican culture through performing various game songs and dances, as well as playing simple songs transcribed for the recorder.

Don’t Miss These 11 New Museum Exhibitions This Winter

Smithsonian Magazine

As the days grow shorter and colder, museums across the country are pushing out a slew of winter exhibits to entertain and educate just about everyone throughout the season. From the timeline of Charlie Brown to history of food sculptures, spectacularly colored frogs to a gender-fluid art installation, there will be plenty of diversions available to help banish the cold-weather doldrums this year. These 11 new winter exhibits are just a few can’t-miss events to help get you through the winter.

Charles M. Schulz Museum—You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown
(Santa Rosa, CA; February 23, 2017 – July 16, 2017)

(Courtesy of the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center, Santa Rosa, California. )

The musical theater show You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown first debuted in New York on March 7, 1967, and is one of the most frequently performed in the history of American theater. In fact, during the four years spanning its off-Broadway debut through the end of its original run in 1971, the show clocked 1,597 performances. To celebrate the production's 50th anniversary in 2017, the Charles M. Schulz Museum—dedicated to the works of the cartoonist Schulz—will open an exhibit of the same name

Visitors to the exhibit will find rare items relating to the show’s performances, including original scripts with handwritten notes and drawings, original music scores, cast photos, playbills and more.

Detroit Institute of Arts—The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals
(Detroit, MI; December 16, 2016 to April 16, 2017)

“Cuccagna Arch of Bread, Cheese, and Suckling Pigs on the Feast of Saint John the Baptist, Anonymous, woodcut. (Los Angeles, Getty Research Institute)

Between the 16th and 19th centuries in Europe, nearly every public celebration, street parade, and court banquet featured towering edible sculptures. Comprised of bread, cheese, meat, sugar, flowers, and fruit, these sweet and savory confections took center stage at each public event. The Edible Monument looks at these historical food creations through 140 prints, rare books, and serving manuals.

The exhibit comes with its own edible monument, as well; sculptor and culinary historian Ivan Day will display a sugar sculpture named “Palace of Circe,” based on an 18th-century print that famously depicts the ancient Greek hero, Ulysses. It will include a sugar temple with sugar statues and sugar-sand gardens.

Mütter Museum—Tracing the Remains
(Philadelphia, PA; January 13, 2017 – July 6, 2017)

Fiber art by Sabrina Small. (Courtesy of the Mütter Museum)

Tracing the Remains touches on the Mütter Museum’s mission in a unique way: through the intricate construction of fiber arts. Using beautiful artwork throughout the exhibit, local artists Sabrina Small and Caitlin McCormack employ their experience with beadwork, embroidery, and crochet to illustrate the effects of chronic illness. The pieces transform the museum’s collections into personal narrative, exploring the timelines of life, death, and decay.

Newseum—Louder Than Words: Rock, Power and Politics
(Washington, D.C.; January 13, 2017 – July 31, 2017)

John Lennon originally acquired this guitar in 1964 to replace an identical one that was stolen. He used it extensively throughout his career. It was prominently seen in the film Help! In 1967, the guitar was painted psychedelic blue and red by the Fool, the Dutch art cooperative that also painted Lennon’s Rolls-Royce. In 1968, Lennon had the guitar’s finish stripped to the natural wood finish. Lennon and Yoko Ono held two “bed-ins” for peace in March and May of 1969, which Lennon commemorated by drawing caricatures of Yoko and himself on the guitar. It was during the second bed-in, held at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, that the single “Give Peace a Chance” was recorded, using this guitar. (Collection of the Estate of John Lennon)

In partnership with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, this winter the Newseum will explore how rock music can potentially change attitudes about patriotism, equality, freedom, and peace. And it's not just the music—Louder Than Words also focuses on the artists themselves, examining how they have exercised their First Amendment rights to challenge beliefs and affect change.

One of the most exciting pieces in the exhibit is the guitar John Lennon debuted when he introduced the song “Give Peace a Chance” with Yoko Ono. Other parts of the display explore Bob Dylan, U2, Rage Against the Machine, and more.

Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University—In Search of Noble Marbles: The Earliest Travelers to Greece
(Atlanta, GA; January 14, 2017 – April 9, 2017)

Engraving of the destruction of the Parthenon by the bombardment of the Venetian general Francesco Morosini in 1678. From Francesco Fanelli, Atene Attica descritta (Venice 1707). (Courtesy of the Michael C. Carlos Museum of Emory University)

From 1453 to the 1820s, Greece was ruled by a brutal political regime, making it nearly inaccessible to the Western world. A select few intrepid explorers were able to venture into the country, documenting what they saw in exacting detail. Noble Marbles investigates these explorations.

Separated into three parts, the exhibit first tracks early travelers up to the point of Greece’s movement toward independence. Here, visitors can see the first printed image of Athens dating to 1493. The second part of the exhibit focuses on explorers of the Ionian Islands, and the third part highlights monuments as works of art.

Florida Museum of Natural History—Frogs! A Chorus of Colors
(Gainesville, FL; January 28, 2017 – September 4, 2017)

A green and black poison frog. (Reptiland)

Nature’s colorful display will be hopping into the Florida Museum of Natural History this winter with an exhibit that's, well...all about frogs. Guests will have the chance to visually experience stunning live anurans—the common frog and toad—and learn how each has adapted to survival in the wild. It’s a hands-on exhibit, too; visitors can take part in a hidden frog scavenger hunt, activate frog calls, and even perform a virtual dissection. 

The museum will also host a 5K race on February 11 to celebrate the opening of the exhibit. Interested? You can sign up here.

International Museum of Surgical Science—Kjell Theory
(Chicago, IL; January 20, 2017 – February 26, 2017)

Part of the Kjell Theory exhibit. (Courtesy of the International Museum of Surgical Science)

In a surrealistic shout-out to Alan Turing—a gay computing pioneer frequently credited as "the father of the computer," and later a biologist—and to Guillaume Apollinaire’s 1917 opéra bouffe, Les Mamelles de Tirésias, Kjell Theory is a juxtoposition. The resulting exhibit straddles the boundaries between the physical and virtual worlds—the past and future, male and female genders, and human life and machine.

The exhibit is named for Turing’s theory of morphogenesis—the autonomous generation of natural forms—that itself is named after a love interest, Kjell, whom Turing met in Norway.

The National Museum of American History—Puppets & Muppets
(Washington, D.C.; November 23, 2016 – January 8, 2017)

The Cookie Monster. (Courtesy of The National Museum of American History)

Celebrate the country’s historical pastime of puppet-based entertainment at Puppets and Muppets this winter. The exhibit showcases puppets and marionettes from the National Museum of American History’s collection, and investigates the evolution of puppetry as an art form.

Among the standout pieces in the exhibit are a marionette from the 1963 World’s Fair, a royal marionette duo from 1900, Mr. Moose and Bunny Rabbit from Captain Kangaroo, and some of Jim Henson’s beloved creations: Elmo, Cookie Monster, and the first Kermit ever created.

Whitney Museum of American Art—Fast Forward: Painting from the 1980s
(New York, NY; throughout the winter season – check with the museum for dates)

Kenny Scharf (b. 1958). When the Worlds Collide, 1984. Oil and acrylic spray paint on canvas, 122 5/16 × 209 5/16in. (310.7 × 531.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from Edward R. Downe, Jr. and Eric Fischl 84.44. (2016 Kenny Scharf/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York )

It's true, the decade known for its oversized shoulder pads and neon colors actually offered another unique aspect: its art. Fast Forward looks specifically at paint-based creations and how artists used the medium throughout the 1980s, investigating expressive figuration, conceptual practices, and painterly abstraction. There is a particular focus on the politically and socially charged artwork of the time.

Well-known artists Jean-Michel Basquiat, Ross Bleckner, Eric Fischl, Elizabeth Murray, David Salle, and Terry Winters are represented in the exhibit, as are more obscure painters who round out the aesthetic and commentary on display.

Kennedy Space Center—U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame
(Titusville, FL; November 10, 2016 – ongoing)

Opening day at Heroes and Legends, and the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. (Courtesy of the Kennedy Space Center)

Get to know nearly 100 world-famous astronauts at the newly opened U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. Plaques and portraits line the walls of a tech-enhanced rotunda, providing an interactive way to “meet” the astronauts who are honored within. As a bonus, guests can virtually pose with one of the Mercury Seven astronauts in a special photo opportunity.

The Hall of Fame is tucked inside the new Heroes and Legends exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center, a multisensory experience that transports visitors into the inner workings of NASA’s space program and introduces the astronauts who make it all possible. Heroes and Legends uses cutting-edge technology to fully immerse guests—from a 4D theater to holograms to augmented reality.

The Franklin Institute—Jurassic World: The Exhibition
(Philadelphia, PA; November 25, 2016 – April 23, 2017)

Fans of the Jurassic Park franchise have a chance to step into the ultimate theme park—Jurassic World—at this new exhibit. With elements inspired by scenes from the film, visitors will be immersed in the prehistoric world. Animatronic dinosaurs like the brachiosaurus, velociraptor, and tyrannosaurus rex tower up to 24 feet tall. And the information in the exhibit is backed by science; it was created in collaboration with paleontologist Jack Horner, who worked on the original films.

For a great photo op, snap a selfie walking through the iconic Jurassic World Gates. From there, you can visit a petting zoo and the Hammond Creation Lab, plus get a sneak peek at the amusement park’s top-secret project.

The Slaves of the White House Finally Get to Have Their Stories Told

Smithsonian Magazine

President Barack Obama might be the first black president to serve in the White House, but he certainly was not the first black person to live there. Yet the history of the original black residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has been sparsely reported on, as Associated Press reporter Jesse J. Holland discovered when he began researching his latest book, The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House. The Invisibles—a smart sketch on the lives of these men and women in bondage—is intended to serve as a historical first take. Holland’s goal writing about the slaves who resided alongside 10 of the first 12 presidents who lived in the White House is to start a conversation on who these enslaved people were, what they were like, and what happened to them if they were able to escape from bondage.

Your first book, Black Me Built the Capitol: Discovering African-American History In and Around Washington, D.C., touches on similar themes to The Invisibles.  How did you get the idea for writing about this specific lost chapter of black history in the United States?

I was covering politics for the AP back when Obama was doing his first presidential campaign around the country. He decided that weekend to go back home to Chicago. I was on the press bus, sitting in Chicago outside of Obama’s townhouse, trying to think about what book to write next. I wanted to do a follow-up book to my first—which was published in 2007—but I was struggling to come up with a coherent idea. As I was sitting there in Chicago, covering Obama, it hit me: We had always talked about the history of Obama possibly becoming the first black president of the United States, but I knew Obama couldn’t have been the first black man to live in the White House. Washington, D.C. is a southern city and almost all mansions in the South were constructed and run by African Americans. So I said to myself, I want to know who these African American slaves were who lived in the White House.


The Invisibles: The Untold Story of African American Slaves in the White House

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How did you begin researching the story? 

Only one or two of the slaves who worked for the president ever had anything written—Paul Jennings wrote a memoir—but there’s very little written about these men and women enslaved by the presidents. Most of my research was done by reading between lines of presidential memoirs and piecing all of it into one coherent narrative. Presidential historians that work at Monticello and Hermitage in Tennessee, for example, want this research done; they were thrilled when someone wanted to look at these records and were able to send me a lot of materials.

What were some of the more unexpected details you can across during your research?

One of the things that surprised me is how much information was written about these slaves without calling them slaves. They were called servants, they were staff— but they were slaves. Andrew Jackson’s horse racing operation included slave jockeys. There have been things written about Andrew Jackson and horses and jockeys, but not one mentioned the word “slaves.” They were called employees in all the records. So, it’s there, once you know the words to look for. I was also surprised with how much time the presidents spent talking about their slaves in those same code words. When you start reading memoirs, ledgers, these people show up again and again and again, but they are never actually called slaves.

Which president’s relationship with his slaves surprised you the most? 

With Thomas Jefferson, there’s been so much said about him and his family, I don’t know if I discovered anything new, but everything is about context. We mostly talk about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, but James Hemings would have been the first White House chef, if not for the spat between him and Thomas Jefferson.

Or you look at [Joseph] Fossett being caught on White House grounds trying to see his wife. It surprised me because you would think things like that would be more well known. The Thomas Jefferson story is overwhelmed about him and Sally Hemmings, but there are so many stories there.


Also, with everything we know about George Washington, I was shocked to find he advertised in the newspaper for a recapture of an escaped slave. I hadn’t thought any had escaped until I started working on this and then to find he’d advertised for the return, that’s not subtle. He wanted him back and he took whatever route he could take, including taking out an advertisement.

How does reading about these slaves help us better understand the early presidents? 

In the past, we’ve talked about their attitudes in general toward slaves and now we can talk in specifics, and include the names of the slaves they were dealing with. That’s one thing I hope not just historians, but people in general pick out of the abstract. Begin talking about the specifics: this is how the relationships between George Washington and William Lee or Thomas Jefferson with James Hemings or Andrew Jackson with Monkey Simon. This helps us understand presidents’ policies when it came to slavery and race relations at this time. If they said something publicly but did something else privately, it gives us insight into who they are.

Was it frustrating writing around the limited information available?

One of the things I talk about in the book is that this is just a first step. There is no telling how many stories that have been lost because, as a country, we didn’t value these stories. We’re always learning more about the presidents as we go forward and we’ll also learn more about the people who cooked their meals and dressed them.

There’s people doing great work on slave dwellings in the South, great work on history of African American cooking, slave cooking in the past. It’s not the information wasn’t always here, we’re just interested in it now. As we go forward and learn more information and find these old hidden ledgers and photographs, we’ll have a clearer picture of where we came from as a country and that will help us decide where we are going in future.

How to Prep Your Pooch to Win Best in Show

Smithsonian Magazine

Dog shows are funny spectacles, packed with obscure rules, bizarre-looking pups and plenty of tradition. But even though an ordinary mutt might never stand a chance at winning the title of “Best in Show,” it takes more than a poofy hairdo for a dog to become a champion, Tao Tao Holmes writes for Atlas Obscura.

Like the Superbowl, major dog shows run by organizations like the Westminster Kennel Club and the American Kennel Club are annual viewing traditions for millions of people who want to see how the best-looking purebred dogs stand out from the crowd. But just are the Superbowl is the culmination of an entire season of games, a show dog's shot at becoming a champion requires first working its way up the ladder, Holmes reports.

Every dog that prances across the stage at prestigious competitions like the Westminster Dog Show started out by competing in smaller shows against other dogs of its breed and gender. They likely began early: the winners of those competitions are usually puppies, about 12 to 18 months old. From there, they go on to compete for the best of their breed, then finally against other “best of breed” winners. But that’s not even halfway to winning the Westminster Dog Show’s coveted gold-and-purple ribbon. After besting other members of their own breed, show dogs finally test themselves in a “group show” that highlights a certain type of dog, like hounds or terriers. The group winner then faces off against other champions in their group in “all-breed shows,” before eventually going up for Best in Show, Holmes writes.

The thing about dogs shows is that the pampered pooches aren’t really competing against each other: they’re competing against an ideal concept of what the very best of their breed would look like. Dog shows and kennel clubs are built around “standards” – written descriptions of each and every breed’s appearance and function. Although most dachshunds don't spend their days chasing badgers anymore - as they were originally bred to do - their standard reflects the ideal badger-hunting weiner dog. According to the Westminster Kennel Club, standards can include everything from the shape and placement of a dog’s ears to how it behaves. But while some tricks – like dusting a white dog with cornstarch to make it whiter or fluffing up a coat using a hair dryer  – can help, it all comes down to whether a judge thinks that animal best represents the ideal for its kind.

“The best dog show judges are a combination of engineers and artists,” David Frei, the Westminster Dog Show’s longtime host tells Holmes. “The engineers in them need to have all the parts in the right place and set at the right angles, and creating the dog that can do its job...The artists put it all together and get a pleasing picture of the dog—proper balance, proper breed type, the right parts that make it the breed that it is.”

But ribbon or not, none of this truly means that a purebred pup is any better than a scraggly mutt – in the end, for dog owners, the best dog is the one that always meets you at the door, tail wagging away.

NASA Hopes to "Touch the Sun" With a Newly Named Probe

Smithsonian Magazine

The sun seems simple: It dictates day and night and heats up Earth's surface. But for scientists, our closest stellar neighbor still presents many scorching mysteries. So for years, NASA has been working on a high-tech probe capable of withstanding a brush with the sun. And today, the agency announced that its probe is getting a new name.

In a press conference this morning, NASA announced that the craft once known as Solar Probe Plus will now be dubbed the Parker Solar Probe. It gets its name from the physicist Eugene Parker, the first person to suggest the existence of solar winds back in the 1950s. 

Parker, who was working at the University of Chicago’s Enrico Fermi Institute at the time, came up with the concept while trying to explain why comet tails always point away from the sun. His answer: the highest layers of the sun’s corona flow away from the sun itself in a “solar wind.” The idea—and his math backing up the winds—was a breakthrough. Now, the craft that may help figure out exactly how this solar wind works will bear his name.

The mission will be the agency’s first to fly directly into the sun’s atmosphere. The goal: improve space weather predictions by learning more about the sun's corona—the “crown” of plasma that surrounds stars. The sun’s corona is its outer atmosphere, and even though it’s over 90 million miles away, it causes solar winds—charged particles that shoot away from the sun, which can produce storms in Earth’s magnetosphere.

That space weather can disrupt power grids, radio communications and even GPS systems. So the more scientists understand, the better. And there's still much more to learn about the corona, which is much hotter than the sun itself.

Enter the Parker Solar Probe. Scheduled to launch between July 31 and August 19, 2018, the probe will come within 4 million miles of the sun’s surface, NASA says, orbiting the sun at 430,000 miles per hour and facing temperatures of over 2550°F. “We will finally touch the sun,” said project scientist Nicola Fox at the press conference.

Thanks to Parker, said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, “nature has become more beautiful.” It’s the first time NASA has named a spacecraft after a researcher during their lifetime.

So what does Parker think of the honor? At the conference, the nearly 90-year-old physicist seemed ready to get right down to business. The craft is “ready to do battle with the solar elements,” he told the audience, and prepared to face down “heroic” temperatures in an attempt to decipher the secrets of a star he already helped demystify. And with just 425 days until launch, Parker himself seemed to feel the excitement.

“Hooray for solar probe,” he told the crowd.

Two Minutes to Understanding the Theory of Evolution

Smithsonian Magazine

I was glancing through YouTube yesterday and came across this wonderful video, "The Theory of Evolution in 2 Minutes." (I also realized that YouTube's grouping of science and technology together can be very annoying—the day after the latest Apple conference, everything is about the iPhone.) And if you're looking for more ways to waste some time, I recommend the video from Theo Gray, author of Mad Science, on how to make frozen mercury sculptures.

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