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Melting Glaciers Are Wreaking Havoc on Earth's Crust

Smithsonian Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These Ridiculously Long-Lived Sharks Are Older Than the United States, and Still Living It Up

Smithsonian Magazine

In an evolutionary sense, sharks are among Earth’s oldest survivors; they’ve been roaming the oceans for more than 400 million years. But some individual sharks boast lifespans that are equally jaw-dropping. Incredibly, deepwater sharks off the coast of Greenland appear to have been alive and swimming back in Shakespeare's day 400-plus years ago—making them the longest-lived of all known vertebrates.

Bristlecone pines can live to be 5,000 years old. Sea sponges can live for thousands of years. One quahog, a hard-shelled ocean clam, died in 2006 at the age of 507. But among vertebrates, the long-lived skew much younger. Bowhead whales and rougheye rockfish can live for up to 200 years, and a few giant tortoises may also approach the two century mark. Now it seems that Greenland sharks more than double even these remarkable lifespans, scientists report today in Science.

The reason for the sharks’ unfathomably long lives has to do with their lifestyles. Cold-blooded animals that live in cold environments often have slow metabolic rates, which are correlated with longevity. “The general rule is that deep and cold equals old, so I think a lot of people expected species like Greenland sharks to be long-lived,” says Chris Lowe, a shark biologist at the California State University at Long Beach. “But holy cow, this takes it to an entirely different level.”

Lowe, who wasn’t involved in the research, adds that Greenland sharks must have a metabolic rate “just above a rock.”

Greenland sharks spend their time in the remote, freezing depths of the Arctic and North Atlantic oceans, making it difficult for researchers to parse the details of their lifestyle and reproduction. Determining their birthdates is even harder. Until now, scientists have been thwarted in their efforts to date this elasmobranch species—a group which include sharks, skates, and rays—by the fact that the animals lack calcium-rich bones, which can be radiocarbon dated.

Faced with a dearth of calcium-rich material to date, the authors of the new study employed a creative solution: They searched the sharks’ eyes. The nucleus of the shark’s eye lens, it turns out, is made up of inert crystalline proteins that are formed when the shark is an embryo and contain some of the same isotopes used to date bones and teeth. Measuring the relative ratios of these isotopes enabled scientists to determine the year when each shark was aged zero.

Scientists examined 28 female sharks—all acquired as bycatch from commercial fisheries—to find that many seemed to have lived longer than two centuries. (Scientists discarded the youngest animals, because they showed signs of radiocarbon released by Cold War-era nuclear bomb testing.) The biggest shark of this group, which measured about 16.5 feet, was believed to be 392 years old—placing her in the era of astronomer Galileo Galilei. Yet Greenland sharks are known to grow well over 20 feet, meaning many are likely even older.

Hákarl, an Icelandic dish of fermented shark meat. (Moohaha / Flickr)

Given that the study produced such striking conclusions and relied on unorthodox methods, scientists will likely question its findings. But Lowe said the idea to use radiocarbon in the eye lens is “creative and bold, but I think a safe approach to take,” adding that the results are “mind-boggling.” “If this dating is accurate there are Greenland sharks swimming around now that were swimming around long, long before the U.S. was even founded,” he says. “I have a hard time getting my head around that.”

The key to sticking around longer may have to do with growing slowly. Thanks to several tagging studies dating as far back as the 1950s, we knew that Greenland sharks grow at a snail’s pace, expanding by 1 centimeter a year. Yet they live so long that they still reach typical lengths of 400 to 500 centimeters, or 13 to 16 feet, by the time they attain full size. By contrast, great white sharks—a reasonable comparison in terms of size, says Lowe—can grow a foot a year during the first few years of their lives.

Matching the sharks' ages to their sizes produced another insight. Because previous studies have revealed that females become sexually mature only when they exceed lengths of 400 centimeters, it now appears the sharks don’t reach reproductive maturity until they are 156 years old. From a conservation standpoint, that’s concerning: Such a slow rate of reproduction means that each individual shark may be far more important to the species as a whole than scientists previously realized.

Fishermen once hunted Greenland sharks for their valuable liver oil, which could be used in lamps. A century ago, Greenland alone landed 32,000 sharks a year according to studies compiled at the time. Iceland and Norway also fished the sharks for their oil, which was also used in industrial lubricant and cosmetics. Although the oil lamp industry—and thus most of the Greenland shark trade—is now a relic, that violent history could still have ramifications today.

“One of the possible reasons for large Greenland sharks being rare could be because of [that] targeted fishery for them,” says Richard Brill, a fishery biologist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and a co-author on the study. “It's possible that the original age structure of the population has not had time to recover in the intervening years ,as the sharks are so slow growing.”

Lamp oil isn’t the only use humans have found for this marine methuselah. While its flesh is toxic, laced with an unpalatable natural antifreeze of urea and trimethylamine oxide, that hasn’t stopped us from eating it. In Iceland, shark meat is drained of fluids, dried outside for months, and served in small pieces as a traditional and notoriously pungent hors d'oeuvre called hákarl or, by some, “rotting shark.” Fortunately, this delicacy creates only a small demand for shark meat according to the BBC, but again, every shark counts.

In fact, the biggest human threat to sharks is unintentional. Many Greenland sharks, including the ones dated in the study, meet their deaths on boat decks when they are picked up as bycatch by coldwater fisheries that catch creatures like shrimp, halibut and other fish with trawling nets and longlines. Preventing that bycatch will have a major bearing on the future outlook of the Greenland shark.

That these fish have survived under pressure for so many years is a testament to their resilience—but not something to be taken for granted. Lowe raises an interesting possibility for how these sharks have managed to survive despite centuries of fishing: “They may have natural refuges where people haven't been able to access them historically,” he says. But as Arctic ice recedes and the seas and fisheries at the top of the world shift, many areas where these ancient animals might have once been safe could open up to new fishing pressures.

Researchers are now planning a shark-catching expedition for next spring, says Brill, “with the hope of getting some eye lens samples from some exceptionally large animals so we can confirm their ages.” But as those exceptionally large sharks aren't often captured, the expedition may rely on something that's even harder to pin down than an exact age: good fortune. “This will take some considerable luck,” Brill says.

What Are North American Trout Doing in Lake Titicaca?

Smithsonian Magazine

For the Inca, Peru’s famous Lake Titicaca was the birthplace of humankind. Straddling the border between Bolivia and Peru, it is the highest navigable lake in the world for large vessels and the biggest lake in South America by volume.  

All this goes to show that it’s an important body of water. And when the sun sets over Lake Titicaca, it’s easy to see why it’s the backdrop to a creation myth. The burning orb dips quickly below the mountains and sends brilliant silver rays dancing over the water, blanketing the landscape in a soft glow.

The locals, many descendants from the region’s original settlers 4,000 years ago, rely on this land and the lake for their livelihoods, but both resources are fast deteriorating. The waning light falls on a shoreline strewn with debris—litter, feces and the long shadow of an animal carcass. Under the rippling water, the native fish are in danger of going extinct because of overfishing, invasive species and pollution.

“When you think of a lake, you think of this clear water, but [Lake Titicaca] is green,” says José Capriles, an anthropologist at the Universidad de Tarapacá in Chile. “It smells like sewage. It’s nasty.”

The fields surrounding Lake Titicaca are lush with potatoes and quinoa, and local restaurants reflect local produce. Quinoa soup and papas fritas (french fries) are served as a side to just about every dish—the main course being fish.

Lake Titicaca has two native fish genera: Orestias, which are called killifishes, and Trichomycterus, a type of catfish. There are two catfish species in the lake and at least 23 species of killifish, though some studies put the number much higher. But, at least as a tourist, it’s getting harder to find native fish on the menu.

Two fish species, humanto (Orestias cuvieri) and boga (Orestias pentlandii), are thought to have gone extinct, and all other native species of killifish, especially the ispi (Orestias ispi), are considered endangered. Instead, many restaurants serve trout and Argentinian silverside. Both are invasive species—the silverside is at least native to the same continent as Lake Titicaca, but the trout comes from the United States.

An angler in Alaska holds a lake trout. The North American fish was introduced to Lake Titicaca in the 1930s. (Tom Soucek/Design Pics/Corbis)

The North American lake trout came to South America with the blessing of Uncle Sam in the 1930s. Peruvian and Bolivian officials at the time saw the lake as an economic opportunity, and they reached out to the U.S. government for help. The United States responded by sending M.C. James from the Fish and Wildlife Service's Division of Fish Culture to Lake Titicaca. 

James studied the area during the winter of 1935-36, a very short period, and then made a very consequential recommendation. He suggested—for reasons not clear today—stocking the lake with North American fish. 

“A full generation may have passed before the results of this effort will have significance, but if the outcome is favorable [the Department of Fish Culture] will have rendered an outstanding service,” James wrote in a 1941 paper in the journal The Progressive Fish-Culturist.

Two years later, the U.S. government acted on James’ report. In total, the U.S. sent about 500,000 trout eggs and 2 million whitefish eggs. The whitefish eggs didn’t survive, but the trout flourished and are now one of the most invasive species in southern Peru. Lake Titicaca, the fabled birthplace of humanity, was irreversibly altered.

Trout have also infested lakes in Japan, Israel and Italy, where they endanger local fish populations by eating up all the available food.

“When people introduced the trout, the trout outcompeted the Orestias,” Capriles says. “Like any invasive species, there can be consequences.”

The Argentinian silverside was introduced to Lake Titicaca sometime in the 1950s. The fish has a silver stripe running the length of its body, and fish lips that rival those puckered in any selfie. Some say Bolivian boaters brought them to a nearby lake for sport fishing, and they made their way into Lake Titicaca via rivers. In 1955 the silverside, which can grow up to 20 inches long, established itself in the lake and reached a biomass of 20,000 tons. The rapid growth of both the trout and the silverside has been good for the economy but is displacing native species, Capriles adds. 

Even after introducing invasive species into the lake, fishers continue to overfish. In the mid-1960s, the total annual commercial catch was 500 metric tons of fish, according to a 2006 study published in the Journal of Fish Biology. Since then, anecdotal evidence suggests that the catch has continued to decrease. If people fished the lake responsibly, they could get about 350 tons of fish, say the study authors. But there are few regulations governing Lake Titicaca in either Peru or Bolivia, and the rules that do exist aren’t enforced, Capriles says. 

A small boat navigates through tortora reeds in a Lake Titicaca marsh. (Kevin Schafer/Corbis)

Pollution is also a concern. Lake Titicaca is only about 600 feet at its deepest, and climate change has dried up several areas near the shore, concentrating the pollutants dumped there by factories, mining activities, farming and general industry. 

“Anything that occurs within that watershed eventually gets washed from the rivers into the lake,” says Christine Hastorf, a food anthropologist at the University of California Berkeley. “You have an industry chopping wood or using mercury to mine for gold; it gets into the lake.”

Farmers and ranchers up in the surrounding Andes also add to the pollution. Instead of using manure to help grow their crops, many agriculturalists have switched to fertilizer at the urgings of North American NGOs, Hastorf adds. These chemicals are washed out of the soil after it rains and into the lake, which is bad for marine animals. 

The foreign nutrients can also cause large, green algae blooms that suck up all the oxygen in the water. These algae blooms can cause “dead zones” and often release poison into the water that’s gram-per-gram the toxicity of cobra venom, says Wayne Wurtsbaugh, a limnologist at Utah State University. 

“That algae uses up oxygen, and if you don’t have oxygen there, you don’t have a healthy ecosystem,” he adds. “Algae produce toxins that can be a problem for drinking water. [Animals] come in, drink it and die.”

This June, authorities from both countries met in La Paz and agreed to work together to fix the lake’s environmental problems. However, the projects they must undertake to truly clean the lake will cost tens of millions of U.S. dollars. Even if funds are channeled toward a Lake Titicaca restoration program, it’s conceivable that government corruption and civil unrest could stall any projects.

This means it is possible that Lake Titicaca will give birth to an effective partnership between Bolivia and Peru—a partnership that could one day save this natural resource—but it’s unlikely, says Capriles. 

“Last year the pollution in Lake Titicaca became a public issue,” he adds. “There were campaigns to clean up the river and [make] tighter regulations, but it's very difficult to monitor these issues.”

Slugs Inspire Super-Strong Glue to Seal Wounds

Smithsonian Magazine

Even with modern medicine’s advances, doctors still seal wounds with techniques seemingly more appropriate for craft circles than the operating room: staples, sewing kits and glue. Thanks to a new invention, the science of medical adhesives may get a modern revamp. Researchers literally turned over stones to devise a new super-strong glue from an unlikely source—slugs. 

The current gold standard in medical adhesives is none other than superglue. The active compound in superglue, cyanoacrylate, is the toughest substance out there, but being strong is about all it has going for it. Superglue won’t stick to wet surfaces, which tends to be a problem with bleeding wounds. Once applied to a dry surface, it solidifies immediately into a stiff and unyielding plastic that breaks instead of moving with the body during healing. To top things off, it can be toxic to living cells.

“Sometimes it’s surprising, isn’t it?” says David Mooney of the rustic suturing methods available to doctors. Mooney is a professor of bioengineering at Harvard University whose research looks to the natural world to design new materials for medical applications. “Over the evolutionary process organisms have to face a number of different situations,” he says. It might take a million years, but in that time an organism can find the most elegant and effective way to rebuild a shell or patch a wound. Humans reach for a staple gun.

Mooney and his team try and bring a little bit of the animal kingdom’s finesse into man-made solutions to problems. They call it “bioinspiration.” Jianyu Li, a postdoctoral fellow in Mooney’s lab, started the search for an exemplary candidate that was a bastion of the strength and flexibility needed to seal wounds and save lives in a surgical setting. After poring over the literature, “[we] found this very fantastic creature,” Li says. “The slug.”

Arion subfuscus is a common orange slug that lives in northern temperate regions around the world. Its protective mucus has inspired a new medical glue. (Wikimedia Commons)

Arion subfuscus, the slug in question, might seem like an unlikely candidate. These unassuming, rusty orange molluscs lead a simple life in gardens and underneath logs in northern temperate regions around the world, minding their own business. That is, until something messes with them. If a hungry predator tries to take a nibble, the slug detonates a cache of defensive mucus. 

“When I discovered these slugs and picked one of them up, I knew this material was really amazing,” says Andrew Smith, a professor of biology at Ithaca College and an expert in the biochemical properties of mollusc mucus who was not involved in the study. “It literally oozes off the back of the slug and sets in seconds into a really tough, elastic gel,” he says.

“The thing that makes it exciting is that the material is very tough,” Smith says. It can be stretched more than 10 times its own length, like a rubber band that won’t snap. It can harden, but remains flexible. Unlike superglue, it’ll work on wet surfaces. And it’s super, super sticky. In fact, Smith is still struggling to de-gunk his lab equipment.

Transfixed by the power of the mucus, he set out to figure out how it worked.

“A typical gel like Jell-o is stiff, but it’s brittle—if you press a spoon on it it splits,” Smith says. The slugs have figured out a way to be strong where gelatinous desserts are weak. He discovered that the mucus is 97 percent water, but woven through with two different polymers. The first is organized like a mesh net; it provides the strong backbone. Tangled through the mesh are extensive polymer chains that keep the mesh knitted together when stretched long distances. This so-called double matrix is the key to the strength and flexibility of the slug’s mucus.

Then the slugs make the whole thing sticky by lining it with positively charged proteins that act like atomic velcro, binding it to the negative charges on tissue surfaces. The net result? A mouth full of impermeable glue when a predator goes in for a slug snack. Or, the perfect inspiration for a novel, ultra-strong medical adhesive.   

Watch this video in the original article

Based on Smith’s work characterizing the slug mucus, Li set out to replicate its properties in a synthetic adhesive. Mooney and Li point out that no garden critters will ever be harmed to make their invention. “We don’t have any element of slug mucus in our material,” Mooney says. “We used it as inspiration.”

After a few years of trial and error, Li produced a prototype that perfectly mimicked the slug’s durable double matrix properties, which they describe in a study out today in the journal Science. The top layer is a hydrogel that can be cut to the size needed. The second layer is applied as liquid to the hydrogel and activates the chemical bonding. “It’s Scotch tape that’s attached to something very elastic and can move readily with tissues,” Mooney says.

The new adhesive hits the sweet spot when it comes to timing in a surgical setting as well. “It’s not like if you accidentally touch it to your skin it’s stuck and you can’t get it off,” Mooney says. Surgeons would have about 10 seconds to get the adhesive into place. Once set, the adhesive “can accommodate the stress and strain experienced by the tissues,” says Li—strains like a beating heart, breathing, and movement.

With a prototype, the team put its adhesive to the test. They performed mechanical stretching experiments, used the adhesive to patch up injured rat livers, and even demonstrated its strength in sealing a large defect in a beating pig heart. In every trial their slug-inspired adhesive outperformed all the commercially available products, moving flexibly with healing livers and pumping hearts, all with no toxicity evident.  

The team’s strategy of looking to nature to solve problems is a value shared by Phillip Messersmith, a professor of bioengineering and materials science at the University of California Berkeley whose research uses mussels as bioinspiration for adhesives. “It’s really a very important study,” he says. “Very well executed, and with important implications for medical applications.” Though Messersmith had no technical reservations, he notes that any future surgical applications will require the material to be biodegradable.

Luckily, a biodegradable version of these adhesives is next on the docket. With a patent pending, Li and Mooney also plan to assess whether their invention could be used safely in people. “In human patients, safety is paramount so there will be long term studies to have a high level of confidence in safety,” Mooney says. They’re also developing a version of the adhesive that can be injected into hard to reach places that need patching up. Inspired by an unassuming slug under the rocks in your garden, it seems the sky’s the limit for this invention.

“We’ve been working on the slugs for a while, and I’ve been really confident that this was going to lead to something good,” Smith says. “I’ve always felt that this slug was remarkable and had potential to lead to really useful glues, and wow—they really showed.”

Who Are the Real Hollywood Figures Behind 'Hail, Caesar!'?

Smithsonian Magazine

On its surface, the critically lauded Coen brothers movie Hail, Caesar! is a fantastical retro caper comedy (with musical numbers!) and a star-packed ensemble cast. On another level, it’s a meta-meditation on Hollywood and the dirty work that goes into the glossy final product. The biggest whitewash is splashed over the protagonist, Capitol Studio’s fixer Eddie Mannix, based on a real-life MGM executive with the same name, but with an important difference. While Josh Brolin's tightly wound but decent Mannix is played for laughs, the real Eddie Mannix wasn’t funny at all.

According to The Fixers, a scrupulously researched 2005 book by E. J. Fleming, a short but far-from-comprehensive list of Mannix’s misdeeds included being a wife beater and a philanderer. He injured a girlfriend, a young dancer named Mary Nolan, so badly she needed surgery to recover. When Nolan had the audacity to sue him, Mannix leveraged corrupt policemen to threaten her with trumped up drug charges. Mannix and other studio brass tampered with the evidence at the 1932 murder scene of Jean Harlow’s husband, producer Paul Bern, to make it look like suicide, because murder would introduce too many questions, including the inconvenient fact that Berne was still married to another woman.

“At his face, Eddie was a nice guy,” Fleming says. For the book, he interviewed scores of Hollywood old timers including Jack Larson, who played Jimmy Olsen in the 1950s television series The Adventures of Superman. Larson told Flemming he loved Eddie. “That being said,” Flemming says, “[Mannix] was a d***.”

Among his more infamous fixes: It is believed that Mannix tracked down and bought the film negative of a porno movie made by young dancer Billie Cassin, before she became Joan Crawford.

Hail, Caesar! follows the milder, fictional Mannix on a busy day and night in 1951 as he sorts out all manner of troubles involving a dizzying array of stars and movie genres: he brainstorms solutions to the inconvenient out-of-wedlock pregnancy of an Esther Williams-ish star (Scarlett Johansson). Hail, Caesar!’s Mannix also deals with the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock, (George Clooney) the star of an epic (and epically expensive) biblical story who is being held for ransom by a group of money-hungry communist writers called “The Future.”

The characters are all inspired by real stars of the era: George Clooney is the handsome, blotto actor who could be a Charlton Heston/Richard Burton hybrid, but (aside from the alcoholism) mostly he seems to be playing a cartoonish version of himself, a handsome, charismatic star with a natural facility with leftwing politics. Tilda Swinton plays waspish identical twin sisters who are competing gossip columnists torn from the Hedda Hopper/Louella Parson page and Channing Tatum, a talented hoofer who kills it as a dancing sailor, a la Gene Kelly. Capital Pictures (also the company in the Coen’s 1991 Barton Fink) stands in for MGM.

As he runs from crisis to crisis, Brolin’s Mannix relieves stress by going to confession and smacking a couple of people.

The real Mannix was an Irish Catholic New Jersey tough who made his bones as a bouncer at East Coast amusement parks owned by brothers Nicholas and Joseph Schenck. Mannix followed Nicholas Schenck to Loew’s, a company expanding its entertainment offerings to the brand-new motion pictures, when Loew’s merged with MGM in 1924. Schenck sent Mannix west to be his eyes and ears. Mannix arrived in a Hollywood still making silent pictures and began working as a comptroller and assistant to star producer Irving Thalberg.

At the studio, Mannix met Howard Strickling, a young assistant publicist.  According to Fleming, within a year of arriving, both Strickling and Mannix were part of MGM’s inner circle, specifically they were known as “The Fixers.”  During Mannix’s career, which stretched into the 1950s, MGM made scores of classic films and shorts, everything from The Thin Man movies with Dick Powell and Myrna Loy, to Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and later classic musicals like Show Boat and Singing in the Rain. Under the old studio system, actors signed contracts and worked exclusively for one studio. Among MGM’s legendary stable were Greta Garbo, William Haines, Robert Montgomery, Judy Garland, Andy Rooney and Clark Gable.

The two were micromanaging control freaks. They compiled reports on their stars from studio drivers, waiters and janitors. They read private telegrams coming in and out of the studio and bribed police officers. They manipulated and hid information, going to great lengths to benefit the studio, including helping arrange heterosexual dates and even sham marriages for gay actors. For instance, Fleming cites a studio-fabricated affair between Myrna Loy and closeted actor Ramon Navarro. The author says Loy learned first learned of her love for Navarro by reading about it in the Los Angeles Times. Star William Haines, who went on to become a lauded interior decorator, was let go when he would not drop his boyfriend Jimmie Shields.

Under Strickling and Mannix, the studio made problems disappear. Clark Gable kept Strickling and Mannix very busy. They were either telling papers he had been hospitalized for stomach problems when he was instead having his teeth replaced by less-charming dentures or cleaning up car wrecks, including one in which Gable may have killed a pedestrian. Actress Loretta Young became pregnant after an encounter with Gable during the filming of 1935’s Call of the Wild (Young later called the incident rape.) Mannix and Strickling helped hide Young from view during her pregnancy and then arranged for her to “adopt” her own child, just as Johannson’s character does in Hail, Caesar!.

“Gable loved Eddie,” says Fleming. “He was like Eddie. He wasn’t very educated, he was a hard working guy, but he was completely amoral.”

Like Lindsay Lohan or Charlie Sheenthe stars of Hollywood’s golden age were just as trouble prone, but society was less forgiving. “They were going to get in trouble and when they did Eddie Mannix helped get them out of it. They got in trouble and he fixed it.” Fleming says the stars seemed to appreciate that Mannix solved their problems and moved on. “You don’t get the impression from people who knew Eddie that he gave them shit for it.” Instead he made the case that they owed MGM their loyalty.

But Mannix’s dizzyingly list of suspected crimes goes beyond helping others and includes the mysterious death of his first wife Bernice, who died in a car crash outside of Las Vegas while trying to divorce him. Fleming says there is no way of knowing if Mannix was responsible, but “she divorced him for the affairs, the affairs were part of the divorce filing. He wouldn’t have been happy about that going public.”

His second wife, Toni, was the source of more controversy. She had had an affair with George Reeves of Superman fame. When Reeves was murdered in 1959, many thought Mannix was involved. Although never proven, Fleming believes Reeves’s newest girlfriend, society girl Leonore Lemmon, was responsible (the 2006 movie Hollywoodland takes that theory and runs with it.)

Personal scandal aside, Mannix’s and MGM’s fortunes faded together in the '50s. In United States v. Paramount Pictures Inc., the Supreme Court dealt a blow to the profits of big studios like MGM by breaking up their monopoly ownership of theater chains and the distribution of films to independent theatres. Likewise, actors and directors asserted their independence, asking for a percentage of profits, often in lieu of a salary. Television came on the scene, presenting a competing outlet for Americans’ attention. After years of ill-health, Mannix died in 1963.

But in Hail Caesar!’s 1951 all these forces are being felt, but the studio and its fixer Eddie Mannix are going full tilt, in a satirized Coen brothers universe where the art of movie making is simultaneously dirty and beautiful, but nonetheless meaningful. It all goes to show that the Coens have a great reverence for movies, past and present.

One Scientist May Have Finally Figured Out the Mystery of Why a Civil War Submarine Sank

Smithsonian Magazine

Around 6:30 p.m. on February 17, 1864, eight men crammed into the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley, a self-propelled metal tube attached to a bomb, and slipped quietly into the freezing black water off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. The crew hand-cranked the sub more than six kilometers toward its target—the Union blockader USS Housatonic—and surfaced like a leviathan for the charge. By 9:00 p.m., it was over: The Hunley had thrust its spar-mounted torpedo into the Housatonic’s hull and within seconds, 60 kilograms of black powder had caved in the ship.

Just after the brief moment of glory, the Hunley, which had just become the world’s first successful combat submarine, mysteriously sank.

Its demise has baffled scores of researchers and Civil War buffs for more than a century. Now, one maverick scientist is making the bold claim that she has cracked the case. After three years of sleuthing, Rachel Lance, a U.S. Navy biomedical engineer who holds a PhD from Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering in North Carolina, concludes that the blast from the sub’s own torpedo sent blast waves through its iron hull and caused instant death for the eight men inside.

If she’s right, the mystery of the Hunley may finally be put to rest. But how she made the discovery is almost as surprising as the discovery itself: She did it without access to the physical sub, which was excavated in 2000; without prior experience in archaeology or forensics; and without help from the Hunley Project, a team of researchers and scientists at Clemson University in South Carolina that has been on the case full time for the past 17 years.

Without collaboration or key pieces of data, could Lance’s account of the final moments of the Hunley and its crew be right?


On a warm September Saturday, I’m standing outside the student center at Duke, a low-rise contemporary building accented with the university’s signature neo-Gothic stone, when Lance swings around the bend in a blue Pontiac Grand Prix straight out of Motor City where she grew up. As I open the passenger door to introduce myself, I’m hit by a wall of thumping workout music. Lance just came from the gym, and her brown, shoulder-length hair is thrown up in an elastic. A blue, stonewashed T-shirt that reads Detroit rides up her pale, lanky arms.

As we make our way off campus, the music keeps pumping.

“Where are we headed?” I yell.

“I’m taking you to the campus pond to see where we ran some of our experiments,” she thunders back. “It’s quiet there so we can talk.”

An oil painting by Conrad Wise Chapman, circa 1898, depicts the inventor of the ill-fated H. L. Hunley, along with a sentinel. (Wikimedia Commons)

Lance was modeling an underwater explosion at a computer in Duke’s Injury Biomechanics Lab, where she studied blast injuries, when her adviser had the epiphany that set her Hunley obsession in motion. What if, biomechanical engineer Dale Bass suggested, the modeling software could virtually reconstruct the attack on the Housatonic and reveal insights into the fate of the Hunley? Lance, a history buff, was hooked: a historical mystery with a tantalizing lead to follow. Eventually she’d abandon the software for a more hands-on experimental approach, but Bass’s idea was the catalyst she needed.

She began reading theories about why the Hunley went down. One prevailing idea was that the crew ran out of oxygen and suffocated. It was exactly the type of theory she was poised to tackle: she’s been a civil service engineer with the U.S. Navy since 2009 and has expertise in breathing system dynamics and, more specifically, rebreathers—the closed-circuit breathing systems divers use to recycle breathing gas underwater.

As her investigation got underway, Lance noticed there was very little, if any, published research on the crew’s oxygen consumption during the mission. With the navy, she had researched the phenomenon of how much oxygen people used while operating hand-pedal ergometers requiring the same type of motion as the Hunley’s hand-cranked propulsion system. So, she dug up the data and used it to calculate how much oxygen the crew would have used while cranking their way toward the Housatonic.

It wasn’t clear how much oxygen there was to begin with, though. After hauling up the sub, the Hunley Project conservators calculated how much air was likely available. Their data suggests the crew had enough air for little more than two hours. Lance, however, didn’t have access to the actual data. She had met with project members to discuss collaboration, but they wouldn’t share their calculations with her (and, later on, would ask Lance to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which she’d decline). She’d have to go her own way.


She mulled over the problem for days. Then, she remembered thumbing through a newsletter published by Friends of the Hunley, a nonprofit in Charleston that handles outreach, fundraising, and development for the Hunley Project and runs tours at Clemson’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center where the Hunley is being restored. It was filled with interior and exterior photos of the sub, most of which had measurement notations below them. That gave her an idea.

Rachel Lance and her assistants test the CSS Tiny’s gauges with shock tubes at the Duke University reclamation pond in North Carolina. (Courtesy of Rachel Lance/Duke University)

For the next month, Lance sat hunched over her desk printing out photos of the sub, measuring each demarcated point with a ruler. After weeks of painstaking work, she finally had all the measurements necessary to calculate oxygen consumption versus supply. The results leapt off the page. Suffocation was not a plausible explanation for why the Hunley sank.

“Even with conservative calculations, the crew would have been experiencing noticeable hyperventilation, gasping for breath, choking, symptoms of panic, and likely physical pain from high levels of CO2 in the blood,” she says. “But we also know from records that they were seated peacefully at their stations without any signs of struggle. So, from my perspective, this tossed the suffocation theory out the window.” The findings were published in the March 2016 issue of the journal Forensic Science International.

Richard Moon, the medical director of the Duke Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Environmental Physiology, agrees. He helped Lance run the calculations and says, “You have a bunch of submariners who were working moderately hard in an enclosed space. There’s no way they would be working away at the crank in a 10 percent oxygen environment with high levels of CO2 and say, ‘Oh well, things are fine; we’ll just keep on going.’”

The folks at Clemson weren’t convinced. Kellen Correia, president and executive director of the Friends of the Hunley, stated in an email that, “It’s premature to draw any final conclusions about the causes of the loss of the submarine or death of the crew, especially when looking at only one aspect of the situation.” She didn’t, however, reference any specific issues with Lance’s findings.


Debunking the suffocation theory offered Lance some short-term satisfaction, but by this point, she was in deep. She began thinking about the Hunley around the clock, obsessing over it to the point where she’d zone out and stare into her plate of food during dinner with her fiancé. “There was something viscerally terrifying about the fact that eight people died that night, and we had no idea how or why,” she says.

In the meantime, Hunley Project conservators at the Warren Lasch Conservation Center were chiseling—and continue to chisel—their way through the stubborn, concrete-like layer of sand and silt that formed around the Hunley as it sat on the seafloor for more than 100 years.

“The de-concretion has the opportunity to give us more information,” says Clemson archeologist Michael Scafuri, “but we haven’t uncovered any definitive evidence to completely explain the loss of the Hunley. Nothing in and of itself explains what happened.”

There hasn’t been any case-cracking evidence on the human remains side, either. Linda Abrams, a forensic genealogist who has been working on and off with the Hunley Project since 2006, says all of the crew member skeletons were in good shape when they were excavated from the Hunley’s interior. The sub was completely filled with sediment when it was salvaged, so layer upon layer of muck had to be carefully removed before the bones were exposed. “There were no bullet wounds in any of these guys,” she says. And no signs of desperation.

While the scientists haven’t come up with a smoking gun, there is a small area of damage to the sub’s exterior that has stumped them. The forward conning tower has a softball-sized chunk of iron missing where a viewport had been.

A 1900 edition of Popular Science Monthly included this depiction of the cramped quarters within the H. L. Hunley, which we have animated. While nine men are shown here, the Hunley is believed to have had an eight-man crew the night it sank in 1864. (Popular Science Monthly)

Through her research, Lance learned of the damage to the conning tower and the so-called lucky shot theory: a stray bullet fired by Housatonic sailors during the attack punctured the tower, causing the sub to fill with water and sink.

From Scafuri’s perspective, it is a possibility. “The gunfire from the Housatonic may have played a role in this,” he says, “but we cannot confirm that at this point.”

Lance tested the theory by shooting Civil War-era firearms at cast iron samples—the damage to the sub was inconsistent with damage from her rifle fire. Plus, she says, a bullet hole would have allowed water to rush into the sub quickly and caused it to sink much closer to the attack site than where it was found.

Based on her results, Lance crossed the lucky shot theory off her list and documented the findings in a second paper in Forensic Science International.

The Friends of the Hunley declined to comment on the specific findings, but Correia wrote, “Again, Ms. Lance doesn’t have any primary knowledge or data of the Hunley Project.”

Lance pressed on. If the crew hadn’t suffocated, and a bullet hole didn’t sink the sub, what did happen?


When the Hunley took down the towering Housatonic, it was less than five meters away from the blast. And, it was still attached to the torpedo; inspired by Confederate steam-powered torpedo boats known as Davids during the Civil War, the Hunley’s crew had bolted the sub’s torpedo onto the end of its spar. This meant the same explosion that rocked the Housatonic could just as well have meant lights out for the Hunley crew.

Lance had spent the better part of two years investigating the suffocation and lucky shot theories, published twice, and still hadn’t solved the mystery. For her, this explosion theory was the next obvious avenue to explore, and one that meshed well with her injury biomechanics focus at Duke. If a blast wave from the explosion propagated into the interior of the sub, she reasoned, it could have immediately killed the crew or at least injured them sufficiently that they would have been unable to pilot the boat to safety. “When blast waves hit an air space, they slow down like a car hitting a wall,” she explains. “Except in this case, the wall is the surface of the lungs.” The sailors’ lungs could have ruptured and filled with blood.

To test the theory, Lance needed a physical model of the sub. Enter the CSS Tiny, a scale model a sixth the size of the tour bus-length Hunley. Made out of sheet metal, it was a Hunley mini-me right down to ballast tanks filled with water and a steel spar mounted to the bow.

Engineering a miniature submarine wasn’t a stretch for Lance, who grew up working on old cars with her father, a now-retired GM autoworker. As a kid, she was small enough to slide under their 1966 Mustang to change the oil without jacking up the car. “Growing up around car culture makes it easy to fall in love with machinery and engineering,” she says.

At a farm in rural North Carolina, Rachel Lance and one of her assistants, Luke Stalcup, prepare the CSS Tiny to receive explosions to test her blast wave theory. (Photo by Denise Lance)

A few minutes after peeling away from campus in Lance’s Pontiac, we pull into a dusty lot at the Duke University reclamation pond. The thumping bass line cuts out abruptly and the soundtrack is replaced with the ratchet-like chorus of crickets. At the pond’s edge, she gestures to the water, thick with algae: this is where the Tiny took a test run. Lance and a few members from her lab used blast simulation devices known as shock tubes to test the Tiny’s pressure gauges and other equipment in advance of the live explosives phase of the experiment. As she stood in the water, raising and lowering the shock tubes, fish chomped at her legs. It was as if she was being repeatedly stabbed with tiny knives—but by the end of it, Lance and the Tiny were ready for the big event.


The campus pond was off limits to real explosives, so, two weeks later, Lance and her research team trekked out to a three-hectare pond on a rural North Carolina farm for the live ammo tests. They parked the Tiny in the middle of the pond, and with an explosives agent standing guard, the stage was set. Lance began the countdown: “Five! Four! Three! …” The culmination of months of hard work all came down to the next few seconds, and her nerves were frayed as she frantically clicked between sensor readout screens on her laptop.

From a safe distance, farmer Bert Pitt and his grandchildren were ready for the show. Lance had sweet-talked him into volunteering his pond for the project. “When Rachel came out to the farm,” says Pitt in a thick southern drawl, “she tried to butter me up with red velvet cake and explained that it would only be a one-sixth-scale explosion.”

“Two! One!” Pfffsssssttt! The black powder charge exploded on the Tiny’s spar, and a small geyser of pond water erupted. Pressure gauges hung inside and outside the vessel to measure the underwater blast waves. Below the surface, the explosion jetted a blast wave into the Tiny’s hull with so much force that it caused the metal to flex. That motion, in turn, generated a second blast wave that transmitted straight through the hull into the cabin.

“The secondary blast wave from this would have easily caused pulmonary blast trauma that killed the whole crew instantly,” Lance says. “This is what sank the Hunley.”

Moon supports the conclusion. He says most people would assume that the cabin walls would have protected the crew from the blast waves—but few people know much about underwater explosions. “Speculation up to this point has been fine,” he says, “but when you hold it up to hard science, I think the blast wave theory is the most plausible explanation.”

Rachel Lance stands with her model of the H. L. Hunley—the CSS Tiny—at the Duke University reclamation pond. (Photo by Eric Wei)

While Lance believes the mystery of the Hunley can finally be put to rest, the Hunley Project scientists aren’t ready to jump to conclusions. They’ve acknowledged the explosion theory as a possibility in the past, but began to doubt it prior to Lance’s experiment based on results from a computer modeling study conducted by the US Navy in 2013. The study suggests the blast wave would not have harmed the crew, yet further studies continue to second-guess any previous study conclusions.

“The problem is, it’s a complicated scenario,” says Scafuri. “It’s sort of like trying to reconstruct the causes of a car accident with limited information. Would you be able to find evidence of an accident that happened because a bee flew in through the window and distracted the driver, who happened to be texting, on a stretch of road that was slick?”


“Oh, I have something for you,” says Lance at Duke’s reclamation pond. She reaches into her backpack and hands me a cigar-sized, 3D-printed replica of the Hunley—a souvenir of sorts. It offers a micro, yet detailed, view of the sub’s interior that makes me realize how confining the crew compartment—which at full-scale was only one meter wide and 1.2 meters high—must have been for eight grown men. It was a death trap. The fact they crammed themselves into the tube anyway was a sacrifice Lance seems to have unwavering respect for. It’s part of what drove her to press on to the finish line, despite the odds being stacked against her.


But how could it be that Lance was able to unravel a century-old mystery in such a relatively short period of time, particularly given the Hunley Project’s 14-year head start? Was it beginner’s luck, or her ability to approach the problem from a different scientific vantage? Maybe it simply came down to old-fashioned determination. “You have to deal with a lot when doing this kind of research, especially when you’re doing things on your own, which can be difficult and lonely,” she says. “You need to have a lot of perseverance, because that’s where the good stuff is—past that limit where nobody’s been able to push through the problem before.”

In the end, maybe it had more to do with the fact that the Hunley Project is intent on both carrying out the painstakingly slow process of conserving the sub and explaining its disappearance. Although, from a revenue perspective, the mystery in and of itself may be a real positive for the Hunley Project and Friends of the Hunley, considering the sales of T-shirts, shot glasses, and lab tours it helps generate.

Regardless, when Lance’s findings from her blast wave experiment are published (a research paper will be released imminently), the Hunley Project team will be watching.

This time, it will be their theory to disprove.

Related Stories from Hakai Magazine:

Inner Earth Is Teeming With Exotic Forms of Life

Smithsonian Magazine

Ancient bacteria from nearly two miles below Earth's surface: that's what first drew Tullis Onstott to begin his search for life in the most unlikely of places. The geomicrobiologist had just attended a 1992 U.S. Department of Energy meeting about rocks estimated to be more than 200 million years old—older than most dinosaurs. These prehistoric rocks had been unearthed from a gas exploration well, and they turned out to be teeming with bacteria.

“That was pretty amazing to me,” says Princeton University's Onstott. “The idea that these bacteria had been living in these Triassic rocks since they were deposited at a time prior to the age of the dinosaurs, that idea caught my fancy,” he says.

These rocks were among the first substantial evidence that life existed miles underground, and they jumpstarted researchers’ efforts to study life in the so-called deep subsurface. Over the past 20 years, Onstott and others have found that there is a greater variety of life in a lot more inhospitable places than anyone had imagined.

Deep life has been found all over the world and under a variety of conditions—in oil fields and gold mines, beneath ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica and in sediments and rocks below the ocean floor. These places can be extremely hostile environments, with pressures 10 to 100 times that at the surface. Temperatures can range from near freezing to more than 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

A mile or more below the surface there's no sunlight and very little oxygen. In these austere environments, creatures have to scratch out a living on whatever energy they can muster from their surroundings. This means that the pace of life down there can sometimes be incredibly slow. These microbes can be a thousand- or million-fold less abundant than their brethren above ground. And some may have been around for hundreds, thousands or even millions of years—real microscopic Methuselahs.

These creatures of the deep are diverse, consisting of bacteria and other single-celled organisms called archaea. There are even multicellular animals miles below the surface, including tiny worms called nematodes.

“What has been surprising as we continue exploring this deep hidden universe, is that it’s more complex down there than we could have possibly imagined when we started looking at Triassic samples back in the '90s,” says Onstott.

That complexity has opened up a world of possibilities for researchers, from cleaning up toxic waste to the search for extraterrestrial life. Some of these deep organisms feed directly on metals and minerals, and can affect groundwater by increasing or decreasing levels of arsenic, uranium and toxic metals. Scientists hope that these bacteria can soon be adapted to trap or remove such harmful substances from things like the wastewater leaking from a mine.

But perhaps most tantalizing is the idea that the conditions deep underground are so alien they may give researchers clues about where to find extraterrestrial life—and what that life might look like.

“It directly relates to whether life could be existing below the surface of Mars,” says Onstott. “That’s really what drew me into this field from the get-go, and still is a driver for me.”

Between the extreme environments and the relative scarcity of organisms, researchers go to great lengths—and depths—to study these microbes. They venture into mines and caverns or use drills to extract samples from below terrestrial sites or the ocean floor. In some areas it can take several days to get even a single sample. “Going to the ends of the earth and drilling, or going to the Arctic and going underground a mile to get a sample, it’s not easy,” says Onstott.

Probing the Hellish Depths

Almost a mile below Earth’s surface, deep within South Africa’s Beatrix Gold Mine, Maggie Lau looks for life. It’s hot and humid, and only headlamps breach the darkness as Lau, a geomicrobiologist in Onstott’s group at Princeton University, collects water from boreholes. These are holes drilled into the rock by geologists looking for gas and water pockets in advance of mining operations. Lau fills an assortment of vials with gas and water samples ranging in volume from less than a teaspoon’s worth to just over two pints. 

Maggie Lau collects borehole water in a vial more than two miles below Earth’s surface in South Africa’s TauTona gold mine. (Francois Vermeulen (Geosciences Manager, AngloGold Ashanti Limited))

The gas that Lau collects can reveal how ancient the water is. “The samples I am studying are around 40,000 to 80,000 years old,” she says. The water may have originated at the surface and trickled down through cracks over thousands or even millions of years, bringing microorganisms either from the surface or from shallower regions of the subsurface down with it.

Unlike the water, Lau takes a quicker and more dramatic route to the research site. She heads down a mine shaft in a lift-cage—which drops almost a mile in less than a minute—and then walks a mile or more with a loaded backpack. Some tunnels require researchers to crawl, dragging their packs behind them, or wade through knee- or thigh-high water in flooded sections. Occasionally the lift-cage isn’t available after a hard day’s work, and Lau and Onstott have to take the stairs back up. “We were joking that this was like a stairway to heaven,” she says.

In the hellish depths, where the water can reach 130 degrees Fahrenheit and the rocks themselves are often warm to the touch, there’s not a lot of life to be found. To gather as many living cells as possible for her analysis, Lau leaves some of her vials to filter hundreds to thousands of gallons of water over several weeks to a few months.

About a mile below the surface, Lau can usually find 1,000 to 10,000 cells in less than a teaspoonful of water. That might seem like a lot, but a pinch of soil from your backyard can contain 100,000 to a million times as many cells. At sites more than a mile underground, there might only be 500 cells per teaspoon of water. Lau estimates that she’d have to filter water continuously for 200 days to get enough DNA and RNA for her analysis.

It can be difficult to grow bacterial species in the lab without knowing the specific food they eat or the precise conditions under which they thrive. Scientists have only been able to grow about one percent of the bacteria they find at their deep field sites. As a result, most species are only known from their unique molecular signatures—and DNA or RNA sequencing has revealed a plethora of previously unidentified bacteria in the samples scientists have collected down there. 

Watch this video in the original article

Most recently, Lau is going a step beyond finding out what lives down there—she wants to know what they do for a living. Without sunlight and plants to trap the sun’s energy through photosynthesis, these deep-living bacteria have to survive on energy from the chemical reactions between rocks and water. These reactions can produce hydrogen, methane and sulfates, and scientists thought that those three chemicals would fuel the majority of bacteria living in these deep environments.

To her surprise, Lau found that this wasn’t the case. Instead, the chemicals sustain only a minority of the bacteria, which then produce sulfur and nitrates. Bacteria that fed on these secondary chemicals dominated in these environments.

This means that when searching for deep life either on Earth or on other worlds, scientists should look for a broader range of metabolic reactions. “Don’t just focus on the few major processes. We should be more open-minded to look at the full and complete metabolic landscape,” says Lau.

“Being able to actually see what they’re all doing down there now is absolutely the most exciting thing, something that we’ve been always wanting to do and trying to figure out how to do for the last 20 years, and now we can finally do it,” says Onstott.

“[Lau's] first snapshot, it’s like getting the first image back from Mars or something, it’s incredible,” he adds.

A Veritable Zoo

Where there's prey, there are usually predators. And bacteria make a tasty meal for a lot of creatures.

When Gaetan Borgonie heard about these deep bacteria, he wondered if he could find worms called nematodes—which feed on bacteria—in the same subterranean places. Borgonie, a zoologist at Extreme Life Isyensya in Gentbrugge, Belgium, had worked on these worms for 20 years. He knew that nematodes could survive a wide range of conditions at the surface, including extremely hot or cold temperatures and very low oxygen levels, so in theory, they were well suited to conditions deep underground.

Borgonie called up Onstott, who invited him to come explore the mines in South Africa. But finding these worms wasn’t easy. Although they are highly abundant on the surface, in the mines Borgonie had to sample more than 2,500 gallons of water to find a single nematode. “You really need to change your mindset and leave what you know from the surface, because underground is a different planet,” he says.

Borgonie discovered a large number of nematodes living in the mines in 3,000- to 12,000-year-old water from boreholes, as well as in stalactites hanging from the mine's tunnels. These included one new species found nearly a mile below the surface, and another unidentified worm living more than two miles down. These animals were the first evidence of multicellular, eukaryotic life this deep, Borgonie says.

Unlike the unique bacteria found at these depths, the vast majority of the worms belonged to species found on the surface. “These animals are already used to stress, and those that are opportunistic at the surface do very well underground,” says Borgonie.

Deep environments might actually offer some benefits, given the stable conditions and the lack of predators for the worms. “For them it’s like a holiday,” Borgonie says.

White arrows point to bacteria found within biofilms in borehole water from South Africa’s Kopanang gold mine. (Gaetan Borgonie)

Convinced that there must be more such creatures living in the mines, Borgonie left his sampling equipment in South Africa's Driefontein gold mine for two years to filter more than three million gallons of water—enough to fill almost five Olympic-size swimming pools.

“That’s when we found the entire zoo,” Borgonie says. He identified several other multicellular organisms, including flatworms and segmented worms, as well as what appeared to be a crustacean. Nearly all of these species survived by eating bacteria.

The discovery of these organisms is encouraging for scientists looking for extraterrestrial life, Borgonie says. “I think it’s very good that we find such a huge ecosystem underground,” he says. “If we can prove that they can survive indefinitely underground, then it might be very good news for people searching for life on Mars.”

“I would really love [to be doing] this work on the planet Mars,” he says. “That’s why I always say, if they ever give me a one-way ticket to Mars, I’m gone.”

The Alien Deep

Borgonie may not have his ticket just yet, but upcoming space exploration missions could give us a better idea of whether other parts of the solar system could support life.

“One of the things that has given people a sense of optimism where astrobiology is concerned is the finding that there are organisms that can persist in what we would consider very extreme conditions,” says Tori Hoehler, an astrobiologist at the NASA Ames Research Center. Hoehler is a member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Rock-Powered Life team, which studies how reactions between different kinds of rocks and water can generate enough energy to support life.

“One of the most prevalent habitats that is available out there is the one defined by rock and water,” says Hoehler. You can imagine aquifers sitting deep under Mars' surface or the oceans sloshing above the rocky crust of Jupiter's moon Europa or Saturn's moon Enceladus, he says.

NASA’s Europa Multiple Flyby Mission, expected to launch in the next five to ten years, will give scientists a better idea of whether Jupiter's icy moon has any environments that could support life. As for Mars, researchers have gone from asking whether they can find habitable environments to actually looking for evidence of life itself, says Hoehler.

Even though conditions on the Martian surface are currently extremely inhospitable to life, the planet appears to have had an atmosphere and surface water at some time in its past. If life had evolved then, it could have spread to the Martian subsurface, where the environment stayed stable even as the surface turned hostile. It’s possible that life still persists deep underground, waiting for us to dig it out.

An artist's rendering of ESA's ExoMars Rover, which will carry a drill designed to probe down to 6.5 feet below the Martian surface. (ESA)

We won’t have to wait too long to get our first peek beneath the Martian surface. The European Space Agency’s 2018 ExoMars Mission will drill about six feet below the Martian surface to look for signs of life. That may not be deep enough to find living organisms, but it should be far enough below the surface that we could find evidence of life.

More than 20 years since ancient bacteria first gave him a glimpse into Earth's deep life, Onstott can’t wait to see what we find on Mars, especially once scientists can dig a little deeper.

“If there’s a sweet spot on Mars, someplace where you just get the right balance of temperature and water, then there might be organisms surviving under those conditions.”

Learn about this research and more at the Deep Carbon Observatory.

You'll Be Able to Watch Rembrandt’s Most Ambitious Work Be Restored In-Person—or Online

Smithsonian Magazine

“The Night Watch” is Rembrandt’s most ambitious, and arguably most important painting. A monumental portrayal of Amsterdam’s civic guard, the work was the first group portrait to depict its subjects in the middle of an action scene, and Rembrandt’s masterful use of light is on full display. As Nina Siegal reports for the New York Times, experts at the Rijksmuseum, where “The Night Watch” is a star attraction, are now planning a large-scale, years-long restoration of Rembrandt’s masterpiece—each step of which will be viewable in the gallery and online.

The painting has not been restored since 1976, after a visitor hacked at it with a breadknife, defacing a 7-foot-wide section, and successfully tearing off a piece of the canvas. Conservators were able to patch the painting back together, but some areas where they worked have started to yellow. Additionally, a dog represented in the corner of the work has faded to a ghostly white, for reasons that are not entirely clear.

Taco Dibbits, the director of the museum, tells Siegal that the conservation process will likely take several years, and cost “millions.” Before conservators even start to restore the painting, they will study it with “imaging techniques, high-resolution photography and highly advanced computer analysis” to get a better sense of its condition, according to the Rijksmuseum. These cutting-edge technologies weren’t available the last time “The Night Watch” was restored, and Dibbets says that the new investigation may help experts learn more about how the painting was created.

Rembrandt painted “The Night Watch” in 1642 at the behest of Frans Banninck Cocq, Amsterdam’s mayor and the leader of the civic guard. Officially titled “Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Francis Banninck Cocq,” the canvas became known as “The Night Watch” despite the fact that an earlier cleaning in the 1940s showed the scene actually took place in the daylight. Spanning about 11 feet in height and 15 feet in length, the painting is Rembrandt’s largest work, and the scene swirls with motion; at the center is the captain, giving orders to his lieutenant to command the company to march, while the guardsmen around them take their places.

One of the most beguiling figures of the painting, bathed in a luminous glow, is a young girl amidst the swarm of armed men. A chicken hangs from her belt by its claws, and she stands behind a musketeer. The girl represents the militia company—its symbol was a bird’s claw and a type of musket known as a klover—but some theorize that she was rendered in the image of Rembrandt’s wife, Saskia, who died before the painting was completed.

Restoration of the masterpiece is due to begin in July of next year. Before conservators get to work, “The Night Watch” will be featured in a major exhibition honoring the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death, which will showcase the museum’s entire collection of Rembrandt works—22 paintings, 60 drawings and 300 prints.

Fortunately, the painting won’t be shuffled out of view once the conservation process starts. To avoid taking the masterpiece off display, the Rijksmuseum has opted to build a glass chamber around the painting in the Gallery of Honor, which was built especially to house “The Night Watch,” according to the Guardian’s Kate Connolly. As the conservators carry out work on the painting, they will be on full view to visitors of the museum. According to Janelle Zara of artnet News, a number of museums have recently opted to make their conservation processes public in a similar way—a trend that offers an "intimate look at a normally aloof field."

Curious spectators can also follow the "The Night Watch" restoration from afar; the Rijksmuseum will be broadcasting the process on livestream.

“‘The Night Watch’ is one of the most famous paintings in the world,” Dibbets says of the museum’s decision to keep the painting on display. “It belongs to us all.”

Totem-Pole Full Size

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.
From card: "This is one of the two larger poles, acquired for the La. Purch. Expos. exhibit [a.k.a. St. Louis World's Fair of 1904] of the Smithsonian. It was purchased from Joe Hans who had it erected about 1885 as a memorial to his deceased uncle, whose name and totemic emblems he was assuming. It was put up on a site called: "nadogids" (the house to which people are always glad to go). The explanation of the carved figures is as follows, from bottom to top: 1. Beaver, was the original crest of Hans (tseng), 2. Whale (kun), 3. Sea Grizzly Bear (Chagan huaji), 3 Cormorant (kialo) with a face carved on its tail which is merely ornamental, 5. Two "totem-pole" men, with a ceremonial hat between them, on which stands: 6. Eagle (got) (at the top). The Eagle, Cormorant, and the whale are the crests which he took over from his uncle. Carved by natives from the giant cedar Thuja plicata."

See "Monumental Art of Tanu", The Bill Reid Centre, Simon Fraser University . See entry on House 7b: Favourite House of Assembly, where it is noted that the second house on this site, Favourite House of Assembly, was erected sometime before 1885. Pole E233398 is described there as Frontal pole 7B, and the crests on the pole are identified in this way: 1. (top) separate carving of an eagle 2. two watchmen on either side of a small frog with large potlatch cylinders 3. cormorant 4. sea grizzly 5. killer whale 6. beaver with four potlatch cylinders

What Happened When Hong Kong's Schools Went Virtual to Combat the Spread of Coronavirus

Smithsonian Magazine

In the video, my son’s preschool teacher is sitting alone in an empty classroom, surrounded by wooden toy blocks. “When I am building, do I put the small block down and then the big block?” she asks the camera. “Or do I put the big block and then the small block?”

My 3-year-old son is lounging on the couch, half watching, half flipping through a pop-up book. He’s dressed in a fleece shark costume, his preferred attire when not forced to wear his school uniform.

This is what "school" looks like these days here in Hong Kong. Because of the coronavirus outbreak, all schools, including my son's private bilingual preschool, have been closed since January, and won’t reopen until late April at the earliest. "The exact date of class resumption is subject to further assessment," announced the Education Bureau, which controls all schools in Hong Kong, public and private, on February 25. It’s all part of the “social distancing” measures the city has mandated to slow the virus’s spread, which include closing libraries, museums and recreation facilities like pools. Students from preschoolers through PhD candidates are now doing all their education online, a move the Education Bureau calls "suspending classes without suspending learning."

As coronavirus spreads across the globe, other countries are joining Hong Kong and mainland China in this massive, unplanned experiment in online learning. According to Unesco, as of Friday, 14 countries have shut schools down nationwide, affecting upwards of 290 million students, while 13 countries, including the United States, have seen localized school closings. In recent days, schools from Scarsdale, New York, to San Francisco have closed temporarily over contagion concerns. The University of Washington and Stanford University have turned to online classes for the remainder of the quarter, and others are following suit for various lengths of time. Some experts believe more widespread and long-term closures will be necessary in areas with high levels of community transmission. States are preparing for that possibility by looking at their own online learning policies.

A teacher edits a video lesson he recorded for his students. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP via Getty Images)

But what does online learning involve here in Hong Kong? It depends. The city benefits from high internet penetration—90 percent of citizens over 10 years old are online. But beyond that it gets more complicated. The city has a diverse variety of schools, from free government-run schools to partially subsidized English-language schools for non-Cantonese speakers to private religious and international schools. Hong Kong has no specific online curriculum, so schools are cobbling together their own solutions using a myriad of platforms and apps, from Google Classroom, a free web service for assigning and sharing work, to BrainPOP, a site offering animated educational videos. Some students are expected to work alongside their classmates in real time. Others are allowed to watch pre-recorded videos or complete emailed worksheets at their own pace. Some parents are happy with their setups. Others have taken to Facebook to commiserate over “mommy needs wine” memes. The situation can give some insight into what Americans might expect as some schools transition to online learning.

“I’ve been working from home the past four weeks, and it’s been incredibly insightful to actually see what’s going on, because normally I’m not in school,” says Anna Adasiewicz, a business development manager originally from Poland, who has lived in Hong Kong for 16 years. Her 12-year-old daughter attends a subsidized English-language school run by the English Schools Foundation, which runs 22 schools in Hong Kong.

Unlike my son and his shark costume, Adasiewicz’s daughter is expected to be “dressed appropriately” and sit at a table, not a couch, when she logs on to Google Classroom each morning. Her school has been using the free service to share assignments, monitor progress, and let students and teachers chat. They're also doing interactive lessons via Google Hangouts Meet, a virtual-meeting software made free in the wake of the coronavirus.

“I actually think she’s more focused with this approach,” Adasiewicz says. “She’s not distracted by other kids. The class sizes are normally about 30, so I imagine a typical teacher spends a good portion of the time on behavior management. Here the teacher can mute anyone!”

Cat Lao, a special education classroom assistant, whose daughters are 3, 6 and 8, has also been happy with the experience. Her youngest daughter is in a local preschool while her older two attend an English Schools Foundation primary school. Her middle daughter has been using the Seesaw app to share assignments with her teacher and receive feedback. Her eldest daughter has been using Google Classroom and Flipgrid, an app that lets teachers set topics or questions for students to respond to via video. This child especially appreciates the real-time Google Meets, Lao says, since she misses the social aspects of school.

“They’re still learning, and still part of their community as much as they can be,” she says.

But many parents are not happy to find themselves working as de facto part-time teachers.

“For parents who have to work from home, managing school can be quite a task,” says Pragati Mor, a teacher and mother of two young daughters who attend the French International School of Hong Kong.

Her children’s online learning program has been full of technological glitches, Mor says, which requires taking time from her own workday to fuss with unfamiliar programs.

“It needs adult supervision,” she says. “It can be quite daunting.”

Susan Bridges, an education professor at the University of Hong Kong who studies online learning, admits, “It’s a challenge; lots of parents are having to adjust their lifestyles to what feels like homeschooling.”

Research shows that it’s more difficult to keep students motivated online, which means teachers need to mix up their strategies, Bridges says. This can include making lectures shorter, and incorporating real-time quizzes and online small group work. Another problem is testing. If a teacher had planned a proctored exam, they may need to switch to an unsupervised type of assessment instead, such as a term paper. Then there’s the question of hands-on learning, which is especially important in some higher education fields, such as medicine or speech pathology.

“All of that field work that’s essential for our professional and clinical programs, all of these are very difficult to replace, so that’s a big challenge,” Bridges says.

Charles Taylor, the owner of an English-language tutoring center in Hong Kong’s New Territories district, has had to think outside the box to make online learning successful. Before coronavirus hit, he’d already begun using a virtual classroom platform called WizIQ to connect his students with classrooms in Southeast Asia, as a sort of online exchange program. This put him in a better position than many to jump directly to online learning, he says. The main challenge is keeping young children engaged without the physical presence of a teacher. To deal with this, he’s shortened class lengths from an hour to 30 minutes for his 5- and 6-year-old students.

“I think this situation is a really great opportunity for people to be utilizing technology in a more fundamental kind of way,” he says.

Successful online learning is all about “engagement and interaction,” Bridges says. The University of Hong Kong has been helping its professors create more dynamic online learning environments using video meeting platforms like Zoom and recording technology like Panopto, which make it possible to insert quizzes, PowerPoints and captions into pre-recorded lectures. Beyond that, class formats have been up to the individual professors.

But, as Bridges points out, privacy and space are major concerns. Professors are discovering that students won’t turn on their video cameras because they’re embarrassed to be sitting in their childhood bedrooms in front of old K-Pop posters. Zoom has a solution for this, as Bridges demonstrates to me. She turns on a digital background and suddenly she appears to be in a sunny, minimalist office, a potted plant on the desk behind her. Other than a slight pixilation of her face, it looks pretty real.

“These are just little fix-its,” she says.

Still, a digital background can’t change the stresses of multiple people learning and working in Hong Kong’s notoriously tiny apartments.

“It’s crowded, it’s complicated, there are demands on technology,” says Adasiewicz, whose husband, a lawyer, has also been working from home. “We had to update our router.”

A woman and a boy wear a mask as they play basketball on February 27, 2020, in Hong Kong. (Vernon Yuen/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Childcare is a major issue as well. Many Hong Kongers are now returning to their offices after an extended period of working remotely, leaving children at home in front of screens. Some rely on their nannies—nearly half of Hong Kong families with children and a working mother employ a live-in “foreign domestic helper,” usually from the Philippines or Indonesia. Other families count on grandparents for childcare, which means elderly caregivers who may not speak English must serve as tech support.

And not all classes lend themselves to online education. It’s hard to teach physical education online, and missing out on exercise is a problem not only for obesity rates but also for vision. Hong Kong has one of the highest rates of myopia (near-sightedness) in the world, with some 70 percent of kids over 12 suffering, and experts believe it’s because children spend too much time indoors looking at close objects like books and tablets. For many kids, who live in crowded housing estates with little green space, schools’ tracks and rooftop basketball courts provide some of the few opportunities they have for outdoor play. Some schools are encouraging students to take frequent breaks to do mini-exercises like a minute of jumping jacks.

Many hope this experience will force Hong Kong schools to professionalize and standardize their online curricula. This could potentially provide a template for other cities and countries facing their own coronavirus school shutdowns.

“Could this crisis inspire the bureau [of education] to incorporate online learning into the official curriculum and take Hong Kong education to the next level?” wondered Chak Fu Lam, a professor of management at the City University of Hong Kong, in a letter to the editor of the South China Morning Post.

At the end of the day, most parents and teachers seem to understand the situation is out of their control, and that everyone is doing the best they can.

“We have to embrace technology,” Adasiewicz says. “It’s coming our way whether we like it or not.”

Unfortunately, it seems, so is coronavirus.

How a Tree and Its Moth Shaped the Mojave Desert

Smithsonian Magazine

Flowering plants only appear in the fossil record around 100 million years ago, and yet they comprise 90 percent of the plant kingdom. Meanwhile, around 75 percent of known animal species are insects. In Origin of Species, Charles Darwin put forth an explanation for this stunning diversity: pollination. Plants and their insect pollinators, he surmised, must evolve in conjunction with one another in a process he coined “co-evolution” until they blossom into a dazzling array of forms. 

But in the vast world of plants and their pollinators, there was one example that Darwin deemed the “most wonderful case of fertilisation ever published” in a letter to botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker. This was the curious case of the Joshua tree and the yucca moth. 

We’ll start with the Joshua tree, the Mojave Desert’s most iconic plant. With its spiny fronds and clubbed tufts topped by pungent, waxy flowers twisting towards the desert sky, this desert-adapted shrub has a reputation for otherworldliness. Everyone who passes through the desert remembers the majestic Joshua tree; its namesake has inspired artists, filmmakers and many a sojourner in search of transcendence. 

Few travelers, however, wax poetic about its evolutionary partner, the yucca moth. The small, dun bug is initially unassuming, but upon closer inspection, it is an equally extraterrestrial match for the iconic Joshua tree. Instead of a regular mouthpiece, it sports bizarre, tentacle-like fronds, the likes of which are unique among insects—and serve an essential purpose in the desert ecosystem. 

Without nectar to attract pollinators, Joshua trees rely solely on this unassuming moth for pollination. Yucca moths use their dexterous jaw appendages to collect pollen from Joshua tree flowers and deposit it on the female parts of each flower as the moth moves between blooms. In turn, the moth lays her eggs with its thin, blade-like ovipositor on the flowers’ seeds. 

When they hatch, the yucca moth caterpillars eat the seeds—their only food source—before crawling to the ground to form cocoons. And the cycle begins again.

According to Christopher Smith, a biologist at Willamette University who studies pollinator relationships, the relationship between yucca moths and Joshua trees is unlike anything else in the natural world. He should know: Smith has long studied the diverse relationships between insects and plants  in the desert. His previous research focused on cactus longhorn beetles and the spiny plant species they interact with throughout the Sonoran Desert. But nothing, he says, compares to the Joshua tree and the yucca moth.

Most pollinators accidentally assist the plants they pollinate. Bees and birds will brush up against pollen while they are feeding on a flower’s nectar, spreading it from plant to plant as they continue a day’s feast. Not yucca moths: because their caterpillars depend on the continued existence of Joshua trees and their tasty seeds, the yucca moth’s pollination is an active act of survival. Moreover, this partnership has been going on for millions of years.

Joshua trees do more than provide artistic inspiration: they create essential environmental support for the uncompromising desert ecosystem. These hideously beautiful shrubs provide food and shelter for animals in the Mojave scrublands, where resources are notoriously scarce. During the spring, its flowers are one of the only sources of wet food available for insects, ravens, and ground squirrels.

Yet today, their long-lived partnership may be in danger of breaking down, as the Joshua tree’s natural habitat faces new threats.

The unremarkable-looking yucca moth is one half of an evolutionary partnership that dates back millions of years. (Will (Tad) Cole)

The right moth for the job

There are two distinct kinds of Joshua trees, divided by the low inland basins of Death Valley and the Amargosa Desert: bushy, short-leafed eastern Joshua trees (Yucca brevifolia jaegeriana) and arboreal, long-leafed western Joshua trees (Y. b. brevifolia). The two are so different, scientists have even advocated splitting Yucca brevifolias into two species. But what evolutionary reason is responsible for this divergence? 

That, says Smith, is the “multi-million dollar question.” 

Moths may hold the answer. Ecologists long believed that one species of yucca moth (Tegeticula synthetica) pollinates both kinds of Joshua trees. But in 2003, a team of scientists discovered that a genetically distinct yucca moth (T. antithetica) pollinates the eastern trees exclusively. Like the Joshua trees themselves, this moth was shorter than its western counterpart. Even more eerie, the difference in the distance between the stigma and ovule between the two tree types was the same as the difference in body size, head to abdomen, between the two moths. 

“I thought, ‘That can’t be coincidence,’” Smith says. 

To determine if co-evolution brought about this suspicious speciation, Smith led a team of citizen scientists in 2013 and 2014 to collect morphological data in the one spot where the two species of Joshua trees and their corresponding moths live in harmony: Tikaboo Valley. 

Smith and his team observed that yucca moths deposit their eggs more efficiently in their corresponding Joshua trees, and the Joshua trees in turn provide more space for the eggs when pollinated by the prefered moth. Smith’s preliminary results also show that the moths more successfully reproduce when their body size matches the size of the stalk between the flower’s stigma and ovary, known as the style. 

Though moths will pollinate flowers whose styles are too long, they almost never successfully lay eggs that hatch into caterpillars. When the styles are too short, the moths can damage the flowers with their ovipositor.

Smith points out that these correspondences don’t necessarily prove co-evolution. The Joshua trees could be evolving in reaction to something in their natural environments, and the moths could be responding, which demonstrates evolution, as one species changes in response to environmental stresses (and then the other evolves in response to the first species resonding)—but not co-evolution, where both species change reciprocally in response to one another.

To remove the potential for randomness, Smith now plans to map the genome of the Joshua trees through a collaboration called the Joshua Tree Genome Project, launched last March by Smith and six other scientists and funded through a combination of crowdsourcing and support from the Living Desert. Aside from Smith’s research, one of the primary goals of the project is to identify genes that are involved in the Joshua tree’s adaptation to climate in order to plan for the coming climate crisis. 

Once he has the genomes of the two Joshua trees, Smith will compare them to the genomes of well-studied plants to determine which genes correspond to flower morphology, branch length and other characteristics. From there, he can compare the genomes of the two species of Joshua trees and determine the average variation between their alleles—sthat is, the variation due to evolution. Genes that show dramatic variation when compared to this baseline are marked for natural selection. 

A key part of that strategy may be in its relationship to the yucca moths. Research already demonstrates that the differences in ovipositor length and body size in the yucca moths’ genomes are more pronounced, suggesting that natural selection has driven the discrepancy. Smith hopes to find the same for the morphology of Joshua tree flowers. 

Smith and his team collect yucca moths to study their morphology. (Christopher Smith)

Racing the clock

But time may be running out. Joshua trees are critically threatened by climate change: as the warming climate evaporates precious water from the soil and the frequency of rain decreases, Joshua tree seedlings are less likely to survive prolonged seasons of drought than their full grown counterparts. 

“A lot of times when people look at a place like Joshua Tree National Park where you see a lot of mature trees, they think it looks healthy,” says Cameron Barrows, an ecologist at the Center for Conservation Biology at the University of California at Riverside. “But if you’re not seeing the juveniles, that means the species isn’t replacing itself.”

As fewer Joshua tree seedlings survive and mature, the population dwindles, and so does the diversity of the desert. Because the Joshua tree is a keystone species in the Mojave, a number of different insects, lizards, and birds will lose important sources of habitat in, on, and under their branches.

According to Barrows’s climate models, the Mojave Desert could lose up to 90 percent of Joshua trees before the end of the century. Even in the worst-case scenarios, there are spots Barrows calls “refugia” where Joshua trees could propagate and thrive – if they stay clear of invasive weeds and wildfires – but the range is shrinking considerably.

Like many organisms, Joshua trees are migrating in response to their habitats warming by dropping their seeds further north. Right now, seedlings are growing within 100 meters of their parent plants; in order to reach areas that are cool enough to survive, they may need to move thousands of miles. Joshua tree seeds have yet to demonstrate the ability to spread so quickly.

Perhaps more essentially, neither have yucca moths. “We have no idea how the yucca moth might react to moving thousands of miles north,” Smith admits. Due the yucca moth’s brief lifespan and short interaction with Joshua trees, it is difficult to study how they will respond to such changes in their environments. Without their sole pollinators, Joshua trees will perish regardless of whether their seeds can make the journey.

Understanding these symbiotic relationships becomes even more essential when developing strategies for responding to climate change. Some scientists have suggested physically moving species threatened by climate change, but this could disrupt systems that are not yet fully understood. 

“Often, conservation biologists think of mass communities as static,” says Smith. “In making conservation strategies, we need to be thinking about not just what is the system like today, but how the system will change in the future in response to the world changing.”

One thing is for certain: The loss of the Joshua tree would drastically alter the image of the Mojave Desert in the collective consciousness. Now the fate of these trees—and our ability to defend them—rests in the mouthparts of a tiny gray moth. 

Langley Aerodrome A

National Air and Space Museum
Piloted tandem-wing experimental aircraft built and unsuccessfully tested by Samuel P. Langley in 1903. Fifty-two-horsepower, five-cylinder radial gasoline engine turning two pusher propellers via geared transmission system. Percaline covering. Natural fabric finish; no sealant or paint of any kind.

Samuel Langley's successful flights of his model Aerodromes Number 5 and Number 6 in 1896 led to plans to build a full-sized, human-carrying airplane. Langley's simple approach was merely to scale up the unpiloted Aerodromes to human-carrying proportions. This would prove to be a grave error, as the aerodynamics, structural design, and control system of the smaller aircraft were not adaptable to a full-sized version. Langley's primary focus was the power plant. The completed engine, a water-cooled five-cylinder radial that generated a remarkable 52.4 horsepower, was a great achievement for the time.

Despite the excellent engine, the Aerodrome A, as it was called, met with disastrous results, crashing on takeoff on October 7, 1903, and again on December 8. Langley blamed the launch mechanism. While this was in some small measure true, there is no denying that the Aerodrome A was an overly complex, structurally weak, aerodynamically unsound aircraft. This second crash ended Langley's aeronautical work entirely.

Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834-1906) was a leading scientific figure in the United States in the latter nineteenth century, well known especially for his astronomical research. He became the third Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in 1887. Langley had begun serious investigation into heavier-than-air flight several years earlier while at the then Western University of Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh (now the University of Pittsburgh). He had erected a huge, 18.3 m (60 ft) diameter whirling arm at the university's Allegheny Observatory to perform aerodynamic research. At full speed, the tips of the whirling arm approached seventy miles per hour. Langley mostly ran tests with flat plates, but he also mounted small model airplanes he called aerostats, and even stuffed birds, on the arm. He also conducted an extensive series of experiments with rubber band-powered models.

Langley described these investigations and provided a summary of his results in Experiments in Aerodynamics, published in 1891. He then moved away from purely theoretical aerodynamic research, and began work aimed at engineering an actual flying machine. In 1891, he started to experiment with large, tandem-winged models, approximately 4 m (13 ft) in wingspan, powered by small steam and gasoline engines. Another large whirling arm, 9 m (29.5 ft) in diameter, was set up at the Smithsonian to test curved wing shapes and propellers, probably in connection with the design of these large powered models that Langley called aerodromes.

After several failures with designs that were too fragile and under-powered to sustain themselves, Langley had his first genuine success. On May 6, 1896, Langley's Aerodrome No. 5 made the first successful flight of an unpiloted, engine-driven, heavier-than-air craft of substantial size. It was launched from a spring-actuated catapult mounted on top of a houseboat on the Potomac River near Quantico, Virginia. Two flights were made that afternoon, one of 1,005 m (3,300 ft) and a second of 700 m (2,300 ft), at a speed of approximately 25 miles per hour. On November 28, another successful flight was made with a similar model, the Aerodrome No.6. It flew a distance of approximately 1,460 m (4,790 ft).

Langley's aeronautical experiments appeared to have concluded with the successful flights of Aerodromes No. 5 and 6, but privately he intended to raise funds to begin work on a full-scale, human-carrying aircraft. He believed his only real hope of securing the kind of funding necessary was from the federal government. The breakthrough came when Langley's friend and colleague, Charles D. Walcott, of the U.S. Geological Survey, offered to present the proposal to President McKinley. A panel was created to review Langley's work up to that time. The panel, which included Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, met at the Smithsonian in April 1898. After a week of deliberations, they approved a grant of $50,000 from the Board of Ordnance and Fortification for Langley to construct a full-sized aircraft. The outbreak of the Spanish-American War only five days earlier contributed to the panel's favorable and speedy decision.

Serious work on the airplane, referred to as the Great Aerodrome, or Aerodrome A, began in October 1898. Langley's simple approach was merely to scale up the unpiloted Aerodromes of 1896 to human-carrying proportions. This would prove to be a grave error, as the aerodynamics, structural design, and control system of the smaller aircraft were not adaptable to a full-sized version. The construction details and distribution of stresses on the Aerodrome A were based on the successful performance of a gasoline-powered model, one-fourth the size. This exact scale miniature, known as the Quarter-scale Aerodrome, flew satis-factorily twice on June 18, 1901, and again with an improved engine on August 8, 1903. But these successes masked its flaws as a design prototype for the full-sized, piloted airplane.

Langley was far more concerned with producing a suitable engine for the large craft. He contracted a New York inventor named Stephen M. Balzer to design and build the powerplant. A native of Hungary, Balzer had constructed the first automobile in New York City in 1894. He designed a five-cylinder, air-cooled rotary engine for the Aerodrome A, but it produced only about 8 horsepower rather than the 12 horsepower specified by Langley. Charles M. Manly, Langley's assistant, extensively reworked the Balzer engine, turning it into a water-cooled radial that generated a remarkable 52.4 horsepower at 950 rpm with a power-to-weight ratio of 1.8 kg (4 lb) per horsepower (including the weight of the radiator and water), an amazing achievement for the time.

The airframe was an entirely different matter. It was structurally weak and unsound. Like the smaller aerodromes, it was a tandem-winged design with a cruciform tail. The control system was minimal and was also poorly conceived. The tail moved only in the vertical plane, and acted more like a modern trim tab to stabilize the flight path, rather than as an elevator for positive pitch control inputs. There was a separate rudder, but it was mounted centrally on the airplane, the position where it would be least effective. Even Langley and Manly recognized the limitations of this control arrangement, and they planned to revised it after simple straight-line flight was achieved. For propulsion, two pusher propellers, mounted between the tandem wings, were driven by shafts and gears connected to the centrally-mounted engine, again after the pattern of the smaller aerodromes. The huge aircraft spanned nearly 15 m (50 ft) and was more than 16 m (52 ft) long. It weighed 340 kg (750 lb) including the pilot, Manly.

The first test flight of the Aerodrome A was on October 7, 1903. The airplane was assembled on the rear of a catapult track mounted on a large house-boat moored near Widewater, Va., close to the site where the small aerodromes were successfully flown. Immediately after launching, the Aerodrome plunged into the river at a forty-five-degree angle. A Washington reporter on the scene remarked that it entered the water "like a handful of mortar." Langley was bitterly disappointed and rationalized the failure as a problem with the launch mechanism, not the aircraft.

After repairs, a second attempt was made on December 8, 1903. This time the houseboat launching platform was located on the Potomac River in Washington, D.C. The results were equally disastrous. Just after takeoff, the Aerodrome A reared up, collapsed upon itself, and smashed into the water, momentarily trapping Manly underneath the wreckage in the freezing Potomac before he was rescued, unhurt. Langley again blamed the launching device. While the catapult likely contributed some small part to the failure, there is no denying that the Aerodrome A was an overly complex, structurally weak, aerodynamically unsound aircraft. This second crash of the Aerodrome A ended the aeronautical work of Samuel Langley. His request to the Board of Ordnance and Fortification for further funding was refused and he suffered much public ridicule. He died in 1906.

The remains of the Aerodrome A were left with the Smithsonian Institution by the War Department. In 1914, the Smithsonian contracted Glenn Curtiss, a prominent American aviation pioneer and aircraft manufacturer, to rebuild the Langley Aerodrome A and conduct further flight tests. With significant modifications and improvements, Curtiss was able to coax the Aerodrome A into the air for a number of brief, straight-line flights at Hammondsport, N.Y. After the tests, the airplane was returned to the Smithsonian, restored to its original unsuccessful 1903 configuration, and put on public display in 1918. Smithsonian officials misleadingly identified the Aerodrome A in its label text as the world's first airplane "capable of sustained free flight." The Aerodrome A had, indeed, existed before the Wright brothers' successful 1903 Flyer, but it only flew much later and even then in heavily modified form, making the Smithsonian claim inappropriate at best. This action was, partly, what prompted Orville Wright in 1928 to lend the 1903 Flyer to the Science Museum in London as a gesture of protest regarding the Smithsonian's seeming unwillingness to give him and his brother, Wilbur, full credit for having invented the airplane. The Smithsonian finally clarified the history of the Aerodrome A and its later flight testing in its 1942 annual report, satisfying Orville, and thereby clearing the way for the return of the Wright Flyer to the United States and its donation to the Smithsonian in 1948. The Aerodrome A continued to be displayed in the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries building with a revised label until 1971, when it was removed from public exhibition and restored again by the NASM restoration staff.

Langley Quarter-scale Aerodrome

National Air and Space Museum
Unpiloted, tandem-wing experimental aircraft built and tested by Samuel P. Langley, powered by a five-cylinder radial internal combustion gasoline engine of about 3.2 horsepower, turning two pusher propellers via geared transmission system. Silk covering. Natural fabric finish; no sealant or paint of any kind.

Samuel Langley's aeronautical experiments appeared to have concluded with the successful flights of his Aerodromes Number 5 and Number 6 in 1896, but privately he intended to build a full-sized, human-carrying airplane. Langley's simple approach was merely to scale up the unpiloted Aerodromes of 1896 to human-carrying proportions. The construction details and distribution of stresses on the Aerodrome A, as the full-sized version was called, were based on the successful performance of a gasoline-powered model, one-fourth the size. This exact scale miniature, known as the Quarter-scale Aerodrome, made two flights of 46 m (150 ft) and 108 m (350 ft) on June 18, 1901, powered by a five-cylinder radial internal combustion gasoline engine of about 3.2 horsepower. Between 1901 and 1903, the engine was rebuilt to produce slightly more than three horsepower, after which a final flight of 308 m (1,000 ft) was made on August 8, 1903. Because the structural and control requirements for a full-sized, piloted airplane were very different, the satisfactory flights of the Quarter-scale Aerodrome masked its flaws as a design prototype for the Aerodrome A. When twice attempted to fly in 1903, the Aerodrome A met with disastrous results, ending Langley's aeronautical experiments entirely.

Professor Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834-1906) was a leading scientific figure in the United States in the latter nineteenth century, well known especially for his astronomical research. He became the third Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution in 1887. Langley had begun serious investigation into heavier-than-air flight several years earlier while at the then Western University of Pennsylvania in Pittsburgh (now the University of Pittsburgh). He had erected a huge, 18.3 m (60 ft) diameter whirling arm at the university's Allegheny Observatory to perform aerodynamic research. At full speed, the tips of the whirling arm approached seventy miles per hour. Langley mostly ran tests with flat plates, but he also mounted small model airplanes he called aerostats, and even stuffed birds, on the arm. He also conducted an extensive series of experiments with rubber band-powered models.

Langley described these investigations and provided a summary of his results in Experiments in Aerodynamics, published in 1891. He then moved away from purely theoretical aerodynamic research, and began work aimed at engineering an actual flying machine. In 1891, he started to experiment with large, tandem-winged models, approximately 4 m (13 ft) in wingspan, powered by small steam and gasoline engines. Another large whirling arm, 9 m (29.5 ft) in diameter, was set up at the Smithsonian to test curved wing shapes and propellers, probably in connection with the design of these large powered models that Langley called aerodromes.

After several failures with designs that were too fragile and under-powered to sustain themselves, Langley had his first genuine success. On May 6, 1896, Langley's Aerodrome No. 5 made the first successful flight of an unpiloted, engine-driven, heavier-than-air craft of substantial size. It was launched from a spring-actuated catapult mounted on top of a houseboat on the Potomac River near Quantico, Virginia. Two flights were made that afternoon, one of 1,005 m (3,300 ft) and a second of 700 m (2,300 ft), at a speed of approximately 25 miles per hour. On November 28, another successful flight was made with a similar model, the Aerodrome No.6. It flew a distance of approximately 1,460 m (4,790 ft).

Langley's aeronautical experiments appeared to have concluded with the successful flights of Aerodromes No. 5 and 6, but privately he intended to raise funds to begin work on a full-scale, human-carrying aircraft. He believed his only real hope of securing the kind of funding necessary was from the federal government. The breakthrough came when Langley's friend and colleague, Charles D. Walcott, of the U.S. Geological Survey, offered to present the proposal to President McKinley. A panel was created to review Langley's work up to that time. The panel, which included Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, met at the Smithsonian in April 1898. After a week of deliberations, they approved a grant of $50,000 from the Board of Ordnance and Fortification for Langley to construct a full-sized aircraft. The outbreak of the Spanish-American War only five days earlier contributed to the panel's favorable and speedy decision.

Serious work on the airplane, referred to as the Great Aerodrome, or Aerodrome A, began in October 1898. Langley's simple approach was merely to scale up the unpiloted Aerodromes of 1896 to human-carrying proportions. This would prove to be a grave error, as the aerodynamics, structural design, and control system of the smaller aircraft were not adaptable to a full-sized version.

The construction details and distribution of stresses on the Aerodrome A were based on the successful performance of a gasoline-powered model, one-fourth the size. This exact scale miniature, known as the Quarter-scale Aerodrome, made two flights of 46 m (150 ft) and 108 m (350 ft) on June 18, 1901, powered by a five-cylinder radial internal combustion gasoline engine of about 1.5 horsepower designed and built by a New York inventor named Stephen M. Balzer. A native of Hungary, Balzer had constructed the first automobile in New York City in 1894. Between 1901 and 1903, the engine was rebuilt to produce slightly more than three horsepower, after which a final flight of 308 m (1,000 ft) was made on August 8, 1903. Because the structural and control requirements for a full-sized, piloted airplane were very different, the satisfactory flights of the Quarter-scale Aerodrome masked its flaws as a design prototype for the Aerodrome A. When in 1903 Langley twice attempted to fly the scaled-up, full-sized, piloted version of the Quarter-scale Aerodrome, i.e., the Aerodrome A, he met with disastrous results, thus ending his aeronautical experiments entirely.

The entire structure of the Quarter-scale Aerodrome is original, but the fabric covering has been replaced.

Ancient Greece Springs to Life

Smithsonian Magazine

When the builders of the original Acropolis Museum first broke ground in Athens in 1865, archaeologists sifting through the rubble discovered a headless marble statue buried since the Persian Wars in the early fifth century B.C. Twenty-three years later, the head was identified and the world beheld one of the great treasures of antiquity, the Kritios Boy. Today the sculpture is on view in spectacular modern digs: the New Acropolis Museum, which opened to international fanfare on June 20, 2009, replacing its predecessor with a monumental space ten times the size.

The new museum houses a number of celebrated works from the Acropolis site, including roughly half of the Parthenon Marbles. (Most of the rest, known as the Elgin Marbles, remain in the British Museum in London; the works are the focus of the long-running dispute between Greece and the U.K. over repatriation.) Still, the 3-feet-10-inch–tall Kritios Boy, although dwarfed by the grandeur of the Parthenon, holds a special place in the history of art, pinpointing a momentous transition in the approach to human figuration—from the rigidly posed, geometrically balanced forms of the Archaic period to the more fluid, natural (yet still idealized) representations of the Classical era. Kritios Boy seems poised between life and death, eluding easy classification. “For some scholars, he is the end of Archaic sculpture; for others, he is the beginning of Classical sculpture,” says Ioannis Mylonopoulos, a specialist in ancient Greek art and architecture at Columbia University.

A cast of the original Kritios Boy will be among the artifacts displayed in an exhibition, “The New Acropolis Museum,” at Columbia’s Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Art Gallery from October 20 to December 12. Mylonopoulos, the exhibition’s curator, who was born and raised in Athens, is beyond delighted that his campus office is just steps away from a masterwork he first encountered as an 8-year-old, when his parents felt it was time to take him up to the Acropolis. He now teaches a course devoted to the site, as well as a required core curriculum offering called Art Humanities that begins with a detailed, analytical study of the Parthenon. Both courses bring him joy. “I’m passionate about Archaic sculpture,” Mylonopoulos says, “so whenever I talk about the Kritios Boy I get high, so to speak.”

The stunning architecture of the New Acropolis Museum is a major focus of the Columbia exhibition, which traces the evolution of the project from original sketches to more sophisticated blueprints and models, culminating in full-blown digital images of the realized museum. “You will enter the exhibition room and be confronted—I think this is a great idea—with a work in process,” says Mylonopoulos.

Designed by the New York- and Paris-based Bernard Tschumi Architects (in collaboration with the Greek architect Michael Photiades), the museum sits at the foot of the Acropolis, creating a sort of visual dialogue between ancient and modern Greece. The building respects the street grid of Athens and echoes the tripartite classical program of base-midsection-conclusion, yet is filled with drama and surprise. On the lower level, which hovers atop hundreds of pillars, glass floors allow visitors to view the extensive archaeological excavation site beneath the museum; the double-height middle section houses a forest of artifacts unearthed at the Acropolis; and the glass-enclosed top floor, swiveled Rubik-like to align with the Parthenon itself, features the full length of that monument’s fabled marble frieze. Lost panels are left blank; those remaining in the British Museum are replicated in plaster, yet covered by a veil, in protest. “It’s impossible to stand in the top-floor galleries, in full view of the Parthenon’s ravaged, sun-bleached frame, without craving the marbles’ return,” New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff commented in a rave review of Tschumi’s ambitious project, which he called “mesmerizing” and “eloquent,” among other superlatives.

Image by Newscom. The New Acropolis Museum was designed by New York- and Paris-based Bernard Tschumi Architects (in collaboration with the Greek architect Michael Photiades). (original image)

Image by Newscom. The New Acropolis Museum opened on June 20, 2009, replacing its predecessor with a monumental space ten times the size. (original image)

Image by Philip Baran / Alamy. Kritios Boy holds a special place in the history of art, pinpointing a momentous transition in the approach to human figuration—from the rigidly posed, geometrically balanced forms of the Archaic period to the more fluid, natural representations of the Classical era. (original image)

Having passed through the expansive Tschumi portion of the Wallach Gallery exhibition and another large space filled with artifacts from the Athens museum, visitors will come upon three small rooms dedicated to the pioneering Columbia architectural historian William Bell Dinsmoor (1886–1973), including papers from the university’s famed Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, which he directed from 1920 to 1926. Dinsmoor is revered by contemporary art historians at Columbia. “Everything I know about the Parthenon I learned from Dinsmoor and from teaching Art Humanities, which Dinsmoor was instrumental in developing,” says David Rosand, who holds the university’s Meyer Schapiro chair in art history and has taught there since 1964. Dinsmoor was also a consultant for the concrete replica of the Parthenon in Nashville, Tennessee (once called “the Athens of the West”), which opened in 1931.

“I studied Dinsmoor’s archive at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens,” says Mylonopoulos. “It’s unbelievable what this man was writing about architecture and art, which unfortunately remains unpublished. He was also an excellent epigrapher. He was brilliant at dealing with ancient Greek language and inscriptions.”

To Mylonopoulos, the Acropolis and the Parthenon are deeply personal. “It’s part of your life,” he says. “It’s as if you’re talking about your parents. You love them and they are always there. And you miss them the moment you don’t see them any more.” There’s more at stake than scholarly achievement or national pride, he says, “if you believe in freedom and democracy and the opening up of the human mind and spirit.”

“Athens was the place where all these came together, and if you accept the idea that the Parthenon is the culmination of these ideals, with all their faults—Athenian democracy is not our democracy, but the idea is there—then you realize it’s not about the monument,” he says. “It’s about the culture, it’s about the ideas, and it’s about the society behind this monument.”

What Is a Maker Faire, Exactly?

Smithsonian Magazine

Brace yourself: When you walk into a Maker Faire, right alongside the LED-festooned robots you might see a giant cupcake bicycle, rocket-powered fairground rides or a pirate dance show. A bristling medieval-village signpost points you toward the soldering area, or the fire arts zone, or the fun bike. Or unicorns.

Equal parts steampunk convention, craft show and Bill Nye extravaganza, a Faire can be bewildering.

These bizarre bazaars are gleeful public displays of innovation and do-it-yourself inventiveness, and the only requirement for participants is that they make the contraptions themselves and want to make them accessible to others. When you visit a table, display or presentation, the guy controlling the fire spouting from his dragon car is the same dude who built the thing, usually from the ground up. He’ll probably tell you exactly how he made it happen, too.

But even the godfather of the Maker Faire phenomenon, Dale Dougherty, said it’s tough to explain what these gatherings fundamentally are.

“Faires are a celebration of making in our culture,” says Dougherty. “It’s experimentation and play. Most of the makers are creating something to interact with other people, or to get a reaction out of them.”

Stephen Hawes, an engineering student at the University of Connecticut, demonstrates his forearm-mounted flamethrower at the World Maker Faire 2014. (Becca Henry)

Dougherty publishes Make magazine and is the executive chairman of Maker Media, which sponsors the Faires in cities across the country, and increasingly, the globe. In 2014, there were 131 Faires around the world. Last weekend alone, Faires took place in Kiev, Ukraine; Hanover, Germany; and Vancouver, Canada. Next week there’s one in Shenzhen, China.

Dougherty himself is a maker mainly of edibles: wine, beer, plum jam and hot pepper sauce. But as a former vice president with O’Reilly Media, a company that earned its chops publishing books about the Internet and organizing tech conferences, he has long rubbed shoulders with innovators. (O’Reilly Media credits him with coining the term “Web 2.0” in the ‘90s.)

After starting Make in 2005, to feed people ideas for how to play with all the crazy tech coming out, Dougherty realized that there was an artificial loneliness to creating cool new stuff. Making was a solitary endeavor, and it didn’t have to be.

“I was meeting interesting makers, and I thought they would enjoy meeting each other,” he says. “It’s something we’re missing: You go to a museum and see objects from artists, but you don’t get to talk to them.”

The first Faire was held in San Mateo, California in 2006, and attracted around 20,000 people. Encouraged by the strong initial response, Dougherty and his team wrote a guide for others to use in their own communities. Shows are organized by volunteers, and promoted via word of mouth and social media. This year, over 140,000 people attended the annual two-day show in the Bay Area.

Image by © Brian Cahn/ZUMA Press/Corbis. (original image)

Image by Andrew Kelly. (original image)

Image by Becca Henry. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Flickr user Bill Johnston. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Flickr user Austin Kleon. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Flickr user Bill Johnston. (original image)

For an event to be an official Maker Faire, organizers do all their own outreach to find participants, though they may collaborate with larger entities, including local governments and universities. Planners go to lengths to include makers of all types: gardeners, cooks, artists, engineers, musicians, performers, local businesses and sponsors. Mini Faires are smaller, hyperlocal events that often lead to a city growing a larger Faire. Washington, D.C.’s National Maker Faire evolved from last year’s D.C. Mini Faire and White House Maker Faire.

After a few successful Faires, the “maker movement” was born. Dougherty’s vision is to create places where consumers and creators of art, technology and culture would be able to come together in a cohesive community.

“I like this raw conversation around how did you get that idea, where did you get those parts, what tools did you use, was it hard to make?” says Dougherty.

The way shows are populated by makers turns traditional conference planning on its head: Organizers look at what projects have been submitted, and design the event around that, usually into clustered “villages.” Individuals who don’t fit into a group aren’t ignored—the loner piñatas, cardboard sculptures and pet robots are given space as well. Sometimes, planners put two wildly different projects next to each other to see if the pairing spawns a new idea.

Artist Danny Scheible has created Tapagami, a growing conglomerate sculpture to which participants add objects made from masking tape. It is currently composed of 150,000 individual pieces. He is a veteran of several Bay Area Faires and says he was compelled to join in the fray because to do otherwise would be to miss out on the beginning of a new generation of ingenuity—kids acquire ideas at places like Maker Faire that inspire them. Plus, he says, he leaves each time feeling flush with new ideas for his own art.

"The Faire is like taking Burning Man, Disneyland and Silicon Valley and smashing them together," Scheible says. "It provides me with lifelong friends, and is one of the best places in the world to find people open to collaboration on projects. It motivates me to push my own work much further."

First and foremost, projects are hands-on and interactive. Though many efforts are whimsical and light-hearted, there are plenty of world changers: at the National Maker Faire, a group of Cornell University students are demonstrating their self-contained hydroponics grow box, while elsewhere, 3D Print for Health shows how scanning and printing tumors, bones, organs and other body parts can help patients become more involved in their own healthcare.

In Queens, where the World Maker Faire New York has just sent out its first call for participants for this year’s September event, co-organizer Nick Normal struggles for words to describe what being at a Faire is like. But what is clear is the wonder that people, pushed out of their comfort zones, experience as they visit the different project areas.

In 2014, attendees’ collective efforts in just one day resulted in Tick Tock the Croc, a 51-foot-long watercraft made of repurposed bike frames, complete with audio and lighting.

“Sometimes the parents are taken aback by the ability to take things apart, but their kids are diving right in,” Normal says. “It’s the full spectrum of humanity, saying, are we supposed to do this?”

At last year's Bay Area event, half of all attendees brought their children along. Faires are family friendly, and kids enjoy not being told to keep their hands off everything for a change. It's the exact opposite: children, as well as adults, are encouraged to build, tear down, touch, feel and experience.

The first full-blown Faire to be held in Washington, D.C., hosted by the University of the District of Columbia on June 12 and 13, follows a similar model as other shows by bringing together strongly regional influences. This means that there’s a heavy federal agency presence—tinkerers who happen to work in those places. The D.C. organizers actively ferreted out individuals from the United States Department of Agriculture, NASA, the Department of Homeland Security and the Smithsonian, as well as public schools and universities. But despite high agency participation, the D.C. gathering has the same primary goal as any other—to demystify electronics and remove the intimidation around tech wizardry.

“Everybody can be a maker,” says Brian Jepson, an organizer of the National Maker Faire. “Makers have gone from people who work in their garage to build something fun, to creating a fairly large market of products. The Faires provide these on-ramps where you’re going to go home and say, I have to do that. You don’t need to be an engineer or a programmer. You just have to want to do it.”

President Obama checks out a robotic giraffe with Lindsay Lawlor of San Diego, California, at the White House Maker Faire on June 18, 2014. (© Mike Theiler/pool/Corbis)

The National Maker Faire kicks off the White House’s Week of Making from June 12 through 18, which aims to highlight and encourage the development of technical skills, innovation and entrepreneurship.

At the 2014 White House Maker Faire, President Obama remarked on the weird and wonderful that popped up there—a robotic giraffe was a big hit—and recalled a time not too long ago when everything was DIY.

“Our parents and our grandparents created the world’s largest economy and strongest middle class not by buying stuff, but by building stuff,” he said at the event. “New tools and technologies are making the building of things easier than ever. Across our country, ordinary Americans are inventing incredible things, and then they’re able to bring them to these fairs. And you never know where this kind of enthusiasm and creativity and innovation could lead.”

Since then, 21 federal agencies announced eased access to startup grants, mentoring, training and manufacture permitting. During the 2015 Week of Making, the White House is pushing for an even greater commitment by universities, businesses, schools and libraries to make making easier. Together, the Smithsonian Institution and the United States Patent and Trademark Office, are answering the call by hosting an Innovation Festival on September 26 and 27 at the National Museum of American History, celebrating American innovation and inventors, and other programs that encourage making.

But even with this high-level endorsement, Dougherty is quick to point out that the gatherings aren’t corporate conventions or government-sponsored creations.

“It’s still very much grassroots,” Dougherty says. “It’s lots of people doing things, and somehow it’s come together as a movement. The secret is appreciating that it’s widely distributed and self-organized. I want people to get inspired by the makers they see, and say, ‘This is something I can do.’”

Alternatives to Heterosexual Pairings, Brought to You By Non-Human Animals

Smithsonian Magazine

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, the humanoid inhabitants of the planet Gethen live most of their lives as androgynous, sexless beings. Once a month they enter an estrus-like state known as "kemmer," temporarily adopting the guise of either “male” or “female” with a sexual partner of their choosing. By contrast, interstellar visitors who enter with just one sexual identity, and in constant estrus, are initially considered perveted sexual deviants. The gender-fluid world Le Guin imagined—what she called a "thought experiment" in sexual politics—shattered barriers when it was released in 1969, and continues to make waves today.

But it’s not as far outside the realm of possibility as it may seem—if you know where to look. For much of human history, heterosexual pairings may have been considered the norm, but for the rest of the animal kingdom, they’re anything but. From male clownfish that ascend to female status, to sparrows that exist in four sexes, to trisexual nematodes who can reproduce either in pairs or alone, myriad non-human animal species exist outside the restrictive constraints of a two-sex binary.

Here are just a few examples, brought to you by Mother Nature.

Three’s company

First, let's define our terms: Sex usually refers to biological characteristics, including chromosomes, hormones, and internal and external anatomy. Gender, by contrast, is about one's internal psychological experience and the way they express themselves in society. When we talk about non-human animals, we aren't talking about gender expresion or an inner sense of identity, but about diversity in reproductive strategies and sex roles.

That being said, one of the most common sexual configurations in non-human animals is hermaphroditism: when an individual displays both male and female reproductive organs. And for many animals—being much more creative than us—it's possible to have both these sets of organs either at once, or over a lifetime.

The advantages of simultaneous hermaphroditism might seem obvious. If you can reproduce sans partner, you can say goodbye to the stress of finding a mate—and in species without Tinder, or that live mostly in solitude, this can be a big weight off one’s shoulders. This is the case in trioecious nematodes, a type of roundworm with three sexes: male, female and hermaphrodite. The hermaphrodites, which produce both eggs and sperm at once, are the true solo act of the worm world.

Imagine an apocalyptic situation that leaves one single survivor—for other species, a road to inevitable extinction. For these nematodes, the situation is salvageable—because our (s)hero(ine) can self-fertilize. Now that's clever.

Earthworms will go to great lengths to avoid accidental self-fertilization. (Jackhynes / Wikicommons)

In general, though, hermaphrodites typically only self-fertilize as an act of desperation. Luckily, these trisexual nematodes have options aplenty: For them, three productive partnerships are possible, and different combinations yield strikingly different ratios of sexes in offspring. While in humans, male-female unions generally have a fifty-fifty shot of producing males or females, in these nematodes, coupling hermaphrodites with males will produce only male offspring. On the other hand, mating hermaphrodites to females or other hermaphrodites will yield offspring that are almost entirely females or hermaphrodites.

In this way, different pairings can heavily skew the sex balance in the population—which may be an advantageous move when the surrounding environment is constantly changing. Hermaphrodites, for instance, tend to appear more often under stress, when the population deems it appropriate to prepare for the worst.

“It’s a robust situation with a lot of bet hedging,” explains Diane Shakes, a biologist at The College of William and Mary who studies these nematodes. “These guys have it figured out.”

But what makes self-fertilization such a last resort? The reason has to do with the enormous upside of sex, specifically the genetic exchange that occurs during sexual reproduction. This exchange mixes the genes of both parents in the offspring, increasing diversity in the population as a whole. Self-fertilization, on the other hand, produces clones exclusively. If something comes around that is deadly for you, it will likely kill anything else with your exact genetic makeup … but non-clonal, hybrid offspring may be spared.

Which is why most simultaneously hermaphroditic species purposefully shy away from self-fertilization. Earthworms, which are all simultaneous hermaphrodites, have such a safeguard: their sexual organs are located at either end of their bodies, so that it’s near-impossible to accidentally self-fertilize. Two worms must sidle up alongside in each other in opposite orientations to mate, wherein they fertilize their partner with their male parts. Both worms will go on to lay eggs that have received genetic contributions from both parents. Self-fertilization, on the other hand, would require quite the feat of flexibility—something all the wriggling in the world wouldn’t accomplish.

Can’t wait to be queen

Other species exhibit a type of hermaphroditism that is sequential, rather than simultaneous. In other words, they will change biological sex at least once over the course of a lifetime.

Ocellaris clownfish exist in matriarchies headed by the largest and most aggressive member of the school, who rules as a female. She is attended by a male breeding partner, with whom she mates monogamously. Her charges are a small cohort of androgynous juveniles, who bear the immature reproductive tissues of both sexes. If the female at the top dies, she leaves a vacancy at the top of the strict clownfish hierarchy. To rectify the situation, her male consort will immediately undergo a series of neurological changes and begin to boss and court the smaller fish.

Within a matter of days, the new female will also begin to undergo some pretty stark physical transformations, growing rapidly in size as her testes recede back into her body. Yes, that's right: Like a pawn reaching the other end of a chess board, the former male consort queens up as the school’s newest female.

At the same time, the highest-ranking juvenile in the group begins to mature into a full male. But, according to Justin Rhodes, a biologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, these behavioral signs of being male and female can be misleading. A closer look at their gonads will reveal that both have reverted to a state of ambiguous genitalia—a sort of reproductive stasis. “Brain sex and gonadal sex are completely dissociated,” explains Rhodes.

Only when the two are ready to mate will ovaries and egg-laying machinery populate the female’s genital tract, while the male sprouts testes. Rhodes is not yet sure why these reversions occur, but theorizes that the commitment to becoming female may be irreversible—and thus a risk only worth taking when all conditions are exactly right.

Still other species begin life as a complete tabula rasa: in several reptiles, biological sex is determined not by genes, but by temperature, with warmer eggs hatching males and cooler eggs fated female (a phenomenon sometimes cheekily referred to as “hot dudes and cool chicks”). In alligators, exposure to heat during a sensitive period apparently jumpstarts a suite of genes that prompt male differentiation—but in the cold, offspring default to female.

Quad goals

White-throated sparrows effectively have four different sexes. Yep. (skeeze / Pixabay)

Perhaps one of the most unusual reproductive systems, however, is that of the white-throated sparrow. These unassuming little birds come in just two sexes, male and female, but they also have two color categories: each sparrow has stripes above its eyes where eyebrows might otherwise be, and they can be white or tan. Color mattersimmensely. So much so that each individual bird will only select a mate with the opposite sex and the opposite color.

White females will mate almost exclusively with tan males, and tan females almost exclusively with white males. This effectively creates four biological sex categories.

When researchers studied the genetic basis for these color differences, they found that white birds were carrying an enormous block of mutated genes, including ones coding for pigmentation. And this block of genes was continuing to evolve at a very rapid pace, mirroring what scientists believe is the process that created different sex chromosomes. Sex, down to the level of individual fragments of DNA, will continue to shift and settle into new patterns for as long as the world around us remains dynamic.

“There is fluidity,” says Shakes, the nematode biologist. “It’s not just ‘males’ and ‘females’... [it’s incorrect to think] that’s all there is and anything else is unnatural.” Humans, take note.

This Segregated Railway Car Offers a Visceral Reminder of the Jim Crow Era

Smithsonian Magazine

One of the largest artifacts to demonstrate the cruel effectiveness of segregation under Jim Crow is 77-ton segregation-era railway car that goes on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture when the museum opens in September. It will give visitors the unsettling experience of actually stepping inside the segregated past when they walk through it to view it.

The restored Pullman Palace passenger car, which ran along the Southern Railway route during the first half of the 20th century, serves as a central artifact in the museum’s vast inaugural exhibition “Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation 1876-1968.”

Walking through Southern Railway Car No. 1200, visitors will see there are no luggage racks in the “colored” section, requiring travelers to cram their suitcases around their feet, and that the “colored” bathroom is smaller and lacks the amenities of the “whites” bathroom.

“There are all these subtle and not-so-subtle reminders that ‘you are not as good as the people in the other section,’” says Spencer Crew, curator of the exhibition. “So often this era can seem abstract and far away for people, but this gives them a chance to travel back in time and see and experience it.”

Crew adds that the car speaks particularly to the challenges that African-Americans faced as they tried to move around the country. Train travel was the primary way people covered long distances in the United States until at least the 1950s. Since the segregation laws were almost entirely implemented in the South, this created strange situations for travelers moving between the two parts of the country.

“If you were coming from New York, when you got to Washington, D.C. you would have to make that switch,” says Crew. “Or in the Midwest, if you were traveling through Cincinnati when you got to the border with Kentucky, you have to make that switch.”

Acquiring the car and getting it to the museum has been no easy task. Early in the museum’s planning, director Lonnie Bunch, Crew, and others, including William Withuhn, curator emeritus of history, technology, transportation and business at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, began looking into how a segregated car might be acquired.

They reached out to Pete Claussen, the chairman and CEO of Gulf & Ohio Railways who had long worked with the Smithsonian as a member of its National Board. He was eventually able to track down this car, which was being stored at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, in Chattanooga, though was not on display.

“The car was on the Southern Railway route and it had been changed to become a segregated car,” says Michèle Gates Moresi, the museum’s curator of collections. “The effort and the money and brainpower that went into segregation was important to present.”

It was a car originally built by Pullman in 1922 as an open window coach, and was one of several cars selected to be converted at its Spartanburg, South Carolina, shop, to what the Southern Railway described as “69’-0” Part. Coach (Reclining Seats).” “Part.” was short for “partitioned” segregated cars—while “69'-0”” refers to the length over the end sills of the car.

The museum worked tirelessly to restore the railway car to reflect the late 1940s and early 1950s during the Jim Crow era of segregation. (NMAAHC, Gift of Pete Claussen and Gulf and Ohio Railways)

Gates Moresi points out that records show it went to the shop again in the 1950s for more work, likely for some refurbishment since it was last in the shop 12 years earlier, coming out for service on the railway in 1952. “The partition was maintained after 1952, so we aimed to restore it to the 1940s look of the passenger car,” she says.

Of course, the passenger car had been out of service for decades, so it required extensive restoration work—removing considerable rust on the exterior and undercarriage, and testing for lead and asbestos. It was then restored to reflect the late 1940s and early 1950s structure under Jim Crow. The segregation laws were enforced until 1965. This didn’t necessarily mean a full restoration making it look brand new, but mainly ensuring that it looked era appropriate.

“It was pretty rusted out,” says Gates Moresi. “It took a couple years, from moving it (it was delivered to the museum on a flatbed, with several Washington, D.C. streets closed during its transport), to replacing fabrics and everything else.”

Since many of these cars had been discarded or upgraded by the rail company when the segregation laws were changed, finding these fabrics and replacement parts proved challenging. It was also costly. Fortunately, the museum’s team got financial assistance from Claussen (who donated funds toward the restoration work) as well as a Save America’s Treasures grant and grants from private donors.  

Visitors will walk through the car and be given an introduction to travel segregation—that segregation was not limited to trains and if you traveled by bus or boat or even airlines, such divisions were strictly enforced. But beyond the realities of segregation, the car also offers an opportunity to discuss the role of Pullman porters and coach attendants—key figures in the African-American community.

“These were very well-traveled individuals, so they had a lot of experience and perspective to share with people they talked to as they were traveling across the country,” says Crew. “Their prominence and importance is an important part of the story.”

The museum is also incorporating audio into the artifact, so visitors will hear the voices of people in both the “white” and “colored” sections, having exchanges like one would likely hear at the time (for example, the voice of an African-American girl asking her mom why they can’t use the “white” bathroom and her mother saying that they aren’t allowed to).

“It’s always been part of the museum’s goal to make the experience as visceral as we can,” says Crew. “To do it with strong stories so people can feel close to the experience and this is one of those efforts to make that happen.”

After a Century of Searching, We Finally Detected Gravitational Waves

Smithsonian Magazine

Scientists have heard gravity’s aria for the first time.

As two black holes spiraled toward each other and merged, they created ripples in the fabric of the cosmos in exactly the form physicists have predicted for a century: gravitational waves. Unveiled today during a suite of international press conferences, the signal paves the way for a whole new understanding of the universe.  

"This is the first time the universe has spoken to us through gravitational waves. Up until now we have been deaf," LIGO Laboratory Director David Reitze, of the University of Florida, said today at a press event in Washington, D.C.

At the root of gravitational waves is Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity, which says that anything with mass warps the very fabric of space-time. When massive objects move, they create distortions in the cosmic fabric, generating gravitational waves. These waves ripple through the universe like sound waves pulsing through the air.

Einstein's theory predicts that the universe is teeming with gravitational waves, but until now we hadn’t been able to detect them, in part because the waves are exceptionally faint. But even before its upgraded instruments came officially online last year, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) picked up a clear signal from the powerful collision of two black holes 1.3 billion light-years away.

“To have a gravitational wave signal detected while LIGO is still not near design sensitivity in the first science run is astonishing, it’s jaw-dropping, in a good way” says Joan Centrella, who headed up the Gravitational Astrophysics Laboratory at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center before becoming the deputy director of the Astrophysics Science Division at Goddard.

That exhilaration rippled through LIGO’s Livingston, Louisiana, observatory and through the rest of the world as the team made their announcement. Nearly everything that astronomers have learned about the cosmos has come from different forms of light, such as visible, radio waves and X-rays. But just as seismic waves can reveal hidden structures deep inside Earth, gravitational waves carry with them information about hidden properties of the universe that even light can't reveal.

“We began with a high-risk job with a very high potential payoff,” Kip Thorne, a LIGO co-founder and a gravitational physicist at the California Institute of Technology, said during the press event. “And we are here today with a great triumph—a whole new way to observe the universe.”

Early Clues

The hunt for gravitational waves began a century ago, with the publication of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. In the mid-1970s, physicists Russell A. Hulse and Joseph H. Taylor, Jr. captured extremely convincing evidence that these ripples exist. They measured the time it took for two dense neutron stars—the crushed cores of once-massive stars—to orbit each other.

Based on Einstein's work, they knew these stars should be radiating gravitational energy as they spun, and that lost energy should cause them to spiral towards each other. After studying the two stars for the next few years, they saw that the orbit decreased by exactly the amount predicted by general relativity.

While that finding earned the duo the 1993 Nobel prize in physics, most physicists wouldn’t call it a direct detection of gravitational waves.

In 2001, LIGO began operating at two locations 1,875 miles apart—one in Livingston, Louisiana and the other in Hanford, Washington. A few years later, the European gravitational-wave telescope Virgo also came online. Both operated until 2010 and 2011, respectively, before going offline for upgrades.

While scientists had hoped these initial observatories would capture gravitational waves, they knew it was a long shot. These ripples are very weak signals, and the instruments weren’t sensitive enough to hear their whispers. But the initial runs serves as tests of the technology for the next-generation instruments.

Virgo is still being upgraded, but the LIGO team completed their work on both detectors in 2015. Now called Advanced LIGO, the Louisiana and Washington observatories listened for gravitational waves during the first science-observing run between September 18, 2015, and January 12, 2016. The signal announced today was picked up just prior to that first official run, as the team was running operational tests of the detectors.

Laser Precision

Sensing a wave as it passed through Earth required a lot of clever engineering, computer power and more than 1,000 scientists working around the world.

Inside each L-shaped LIGO observatory, a laser sits at the meeting point of two perpendicular tubes. The laser passes through an instrument that splits the light, so that two beams travel the roughly 2.5 miles down each tube. Mirrors at the ends of the tubes reflect the light back towards its source, where a detector waits.

Typically no light lands on the detector. But when a gravitational wave passes though, it should stretch and squish space-time in a predictable pattern, effectively changing the lengths of the tubes by a tiny amount—on the order of one-thousandth the diameter of a proton. Then, some light will land on the detector.

To account for the incredibly small change, the instrument's mirrors are attached to complex systems that isolate them from most vibrations. LIGO scientists also have special computer programs that can filter through various sorts of background noise, like occasional tremors, and determine if any incoming signal matches possible astronomical sources calculated using general relativity.

The Louisiana and Washington sites work together to verify a sighting. “We don’t believe that we see a gravitational wave unless both detectors see the same signal within the amount of time that the gravitational wave would take to travel between the two sites,” says LIGO team member Amber Stuver of Louisiana State University. In this case, the wave passed through Earth and hit the two detectors just seven milliseconds apart.

Once the Louisiana and Washington sites detect a possible gravitational tune, scientists get to work on the analysis. LIGO picked up this signal on September 14 but is only now able to say with high certainty that they saw gravitational waves.

"It took us months of careful checking, re-checking, analysis, working with every piece of data to make sure of the sighting," Reitze said during the D.C. event. "And we've convinced ourselves that is the case." The results appear this week in Physical Review Letters.

An aerial view of the LIGO detector in Livingston, Louisiana. (LIGO Laboratory)

The gravitational wave signal that astronomers pulled out of the most recent observations matched what they expected for two black holes spiraling toward each other. The dance sends out gravitational waves at a predictable frequency and strength, depending on how far apart the objects are and on their masses.

As they begin to dance closer, the wavelengths of the gravitational waves shrink and their song reaches higher pitches. When the black holes close in for the final embrace, the gravitational wave signal has one final high note, or “chirp,” as astronomers call it.

The September signal lines up beautifully with what the team would expect from two black holes with masses equal to about 29 and 36 times the mass of the sun. Those black holes slammed together to create a new black hole 62 times the mass of the sun—radiating away 3 solar masses worth of gravitational energy.

Expect the Unexpected

With this initial detection, astronomers are hopeful that Advanced LIGO will continue to capture gravitational waves and start building up data for all kinds of scientific studies, from figuring out how supernovas work to learning about the universe’s first few moments. While no other astronomical telescope saw any sign of this black hole collision, some of the other sources Advanced LIGO is looking for should have counterparts visible to telescopes that capture light.

This seems especially promising considering that Advanced LIGO is not even at its full sensitivity yet. That will come in the next few years, says Stuver.

Each of these signals will give astronomers what they never had before: a way to probe extreme cases of gravity and the movements of invisible objects. Even more exciting, astronomers know that with each technological advance, the universe has a way of surprising us.

“Every time that we’ve looked in a new way and different kind of light, we discover something we didn’t expect to find," says Stuver. "And it’s that unexpected thing that revolutionizes our understanding of the universe.” Not long after astronomers turned radio antennas on the sky, they discovered an unexpected type of neutron star called a pulsar. And, perhaps poetically, it was a pulsar and neutron star doing an orbital dance that Hulse and Taylor studied in the 1970s.

Now, with the dawn of gravitational-wave astronomy, scientists have a new tool for sampling the cosmos. And from the sound of it, we’re in for some beautiful music.

Editor's Note: Joan Centrella's affiliation has been corrected.

As the Arctic Erodes, Archaeologists Are Racing to Protect Ancient Treasures

Smithsonian Magazine

A headless body, stretched out along the beach, appears through the smudged window of our ATV as we sail across the sand. There’s a windy lawlessness up here along the Chukchi Sea; I’m reassured by the rifle lashed to the lead ATV in the caravan. The archaeologist at the helm passes the decaying creature without pause. Anne Jensen has seen many headless walruses before—this one was likely already dead when it washed ashore and was relieved of its tusks. Jensen’s not worried about poachers; the rifle is for polar bears—the Arctic’s fiercest of predators. And Jensen seems entirely capable of staying calm and slamming a bullet into one.

We’re just south of Barrow, Alaska, heading to an archaeological site at a place called Walakpa Bay. It’s a grassy coastline that’s been occupied by semi-nomadic native Alaskans for at least 4,000 years. Their story, told in material remains, is scattered across the landscape we traverse at 60 kilometers per hour, past flocks of ducks and eroding bluffs. Most archaeologists mine the soil to better understand how the animals, landscape, and climate of the past may have shaped a culture. For three decades, Jensen has tried to find and tell the stories locked in frozen dirt here on Alaska’s North Slope, the home of the Iñupiat, as they are known today. But as much as Jensen wishes she could do just that, her most important work on this thawing, eroding land is simply trying to protect what’s left of Walakpa, and other vanishing sites, from a warming climate.

At the world’s edge, the Arctic coastline is on the front lines of climate change. As the length of time ice stays fastened to it has plummeted, the shoreline here has eroded faster than almost anywhere else in the world. Two years ago, villagers alerted Jensen to a storm that had wiped out about half of the Walakpa site. The rest could be erased soon, she says, when the storms whip up again. “It’s like a library’s on fire,” says Jensen, equal parts bitterness and Midwestern matter-of-factness. Jensen is the kind of person who would find the notion of books burning for any reason deeply unjust.

Saving Walakpa properly would require months of encampment, dedicated freezers, and soil engineers. There’s no money for all that. “But you gotta try,” she says. “We need to get this data now.” She’s known up here on Alaska’s North Slope for her thoroughness and respect for local traditions—and perhaps above all, her tenacity. Exhibit number one: this five-day mini excursion, a Hail Mary dig to document and preserve a few artifacts on a shoestring budget. The North Slope Borough government has chipped in a few support staff; an archaeologist from Maryland, a local anthropologist, and a PhD candidate from Ohio have volunteered their time; Jensen gave frequent-flier miles to a geoarchaeologist from Idaho to round out the five-scientist crew. She paid out of her pocket for quick and easy field meals—ramen cups.

Two days before leaving, Jensen rummaged through excavation equipment in a dusty garage. Tendrils of her dark hair, sometimes corralled in a ski cap, fell on the beige overalls she often wears. (They reflect the industrial culture that many Iñupiaq have embraced here on the North Slope.) “Okay, so we packed the toilet paper already,” she said. Though she’s tightly focused out in the field, here her small black eyes roved across shovels and buckets. Much of the gear was purchased a few years ago, back when the grant money flowed. Her phone frequently vibrated. (Her chronically ill daughter and a client—a telecom firm—were apparently competing with the remains of hundreds of generations of native Alaskans for her attention.) “Bungee cords are always good,” she said, and we tossed some into a plastic tub.

A sign on her office door quotes US president Teddy Roosevelt: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Jensen has made a steady career on the edge of civilization with limited resources, studying archaeological sites before the sea devours them. Over the centuries, Walakpa’s inhabitants have, even more so, exemplified Roosevelt’s credo. They’ve learned the rhythms of the whales and the ice and the birds, and they’ve mastered the art of adaptation to a challenging life at sea and on the tundra. But as our ATV thrums along the hard sand and waves relentlessly crash against the shoreline, I wonder to myself: what does saving Walakpa even mean?

Archaeologist Anne Jensen has worked in the Arctic—racing to save valuable archaeological sites before they disappear forever—for over 30 years. (Joe Van Os)

Raised in Ballston Spa, New York, Jensen first came to Barrow in 1983 with her husband, Glenn Sheehan, an archaeologist who no longer works in the field. The richness of high-latitude sites, she hoped, would yield novel archaeological data. An average dig in the lower 48, she likes to say, might yield “a banker’s box full of stone tools.” Permafrost sites, by contrast, allow scientists to “actually see what [inhabitants] were eating.” Alaska’s frozen soils preserve organic materials that provide a wealth of ecological and environmental data. Jensen has built her career in hopes of making new kinds of conclusions about the climate, animals, and hunting behaviors of indigenous peoples that once settled Alaska. Just by living, day-to-day, season-to-season, the ancient tribes Jensen studies “were doing environmental sampling back then for us, going back three, four thousand years.” The DNA she collects hints at population dynamics and migratory patterns. Stable isotopes from bones can provide clues to animals’ diets and their positions in the food web. “If we excavate one of these sites we could fill a 20-foot [six-meter] shipping container full of artifacts and samples. Which we’ve done, by the way,” she says.

Jensen and Sheehan have made a comfy home in Hut 170 on the rusty, old Naval Arctic Research Laboratory campus, known as NARL. New Yorker magazines and coffee-table books on archaeology abound, and outside Jensen tends buttercups and willow in what she calls North America’s “northernmost garden.” But what matters most to her is proximity to world-famous archaeological sites. Birnirk—a National Historic Landmark first excavated in 1936, with some of the first evidence of ancient northern Alaskans—is only a 10-minute drive away. Several kilometers farther up the beach lies Nuvuk, the deserted spit of land at one of the most northern tips of North America, where some of Barrow’s oldest Iñupiaq residents remember growing up. And Walakpa, to the south, may be the most important site in the region, says Dennis Stanford, an archaeologist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, whose excavations in the late 1960s and graduate dissertation on Walakpa published in 1976 put the site on the scientific map.

So it’s a heady place for Jensen to serve as de facto town archaeologist. Jensen is an archaeological contractor, her employer a science firm in Barrow that provides research studies and logistics to the local government and visiting scientists. Hers is an almost daily task of evaluating threats to artifacts—and human remains. The ancestors of Barrow’s residents, many in unmarked graves, are found everywhere in the region. That makes archaeology part of the social fiber. And Jensen has become the keeper of this thawing legacy. In 2005, a few dozen archaeologists and volunteers were finishing up a dig at Point Franklin, a coastal site south of Walakpa, when a massive search and rescue helicopter landed on the beach. “People dropped their shovels and their jaws,” recalls Sheehan. “There’s an emergency; we need an archaeologist!” a helicopter crew member called to Jensen. Twenty minutes away, in a village called Wainwright, holes for pilings were about to be drilled in an area where residents thought the unmarked grave of their stillborn child lay. Jensen examined the site for a few hours and declared it free of burials. Jensen knows from deep experience that Iñupiaq oral knowledge is often dead right. “I’d be upset too if someone told me that, but we were glad to allay their concerns,” she says.

(Illustration by Mark Garrison)

Indigenous Alaskans have coped with eroding coasts for centuries or more. In 1852, locals told British captain Rochfort Maguire that erosion forced their grandparents to move Nuvuk more than two kilometers inland. So the community was concerned, though not entirely surprised, when in the 1990s human remains began to poke out of a bluff along the Nuvuk beach. The disintegrating coastline was claiming a graveyard that was once far inland. “The wishes of the community were to see [the bones] reinterred near where they were originally buried,” says Jana Harcharek, Director of Iñupiaq Education for the North Slope. Following careful procedures specified by village elders, a team of volunteers and students, led by Jensen since 1997, reinterred the bones. The team has subsequently found and reburied dozens more. “Anne has always been very consultative—she consults with elders and community members about how to proceed. She’s helped the community tremendously,” adds Harcharek.

While Jensen’s efforts at Nuvuk fostered goodwill, the site also proved scientifically valuable. Archaeologists had written off the site as “contact era”—too young to yield important data. Jensen’s work, however, revealed arrowheads of an early culture known as Ipiutak that existed in Alaska until roughly 400 CE. “We were completely surprised,” says Jensen during an afternoon visit to the windswept, empty site. By luck, she’d dug deeper than previous archaeologists—they hadn’t had exposed human remains to clue them in—and warming permafrost had helped, too. She called a bulldozer in to carefully remove top layers, subsequently allowing volunteers to reveal buried wooden Ipiutak structures that had tantalizing detail. But when Jensen applied to the US National Science Foundation to mount a full excavation, her grant application was—like most applications on the first try—denied. “I didn’t bother reapplying because by the time we would have reapplied and gotten funded the land wasn’t going to be there,” she says, pointing at the waves. The soil containing the wooden structures is now tens of meters out to sea.

Jensen nurtures her ties to the Iñupiaq community, and their knowledge has in turn informed her archaeology. She brings her staff, for example, to the early summer Nalukatuq celebrations, in which whaling crews share meat and throw each other in the air with sealskin blankets. That “may not sound like archaeology, but whaling has been the organizing focus of this culture since before most of the sites I work on were formed,” she wrote on her blog. “I really don’t see how one can expect to interpret these sites without a pretty good understanding of what whaling actually entails.” In 2012, she published a paper showing that modern whalers keep their whaling gear outside of their homes; it was an effort to challenge researchers who she felt focused too much on the interior of excavated dwellings, leading to inaccurate conclusions about Eskimo culture.

But a debate over which parts of a site to excavate is meaningless if the site disappears entirely. In 2013, after a summer storm slammed the coast, hunters reported seeing wooden structures protruding from a bluff at Walakpa. For Jensen, the site has special scientific value. Unlike other sites, such as Nuvuk where the occupation record includes gaps, archaeologists believe indigenous people continuously hunted, fished, and camped at Walakpa for millennia. That makes comparisons of flora, fauna, and human culture particularly telling. Its cultural significance is deep too, says Harcharek. “People continue to use it today. It’s a very important waterfowl hunting site in the spring and a regular camping spot.” (Ualiqpaa, as the site is called in the modern Iñupiaq language, means “western settlement entrance.”) Some of the last elders to live at Walakpa remembered complaining about the smell of ancient sea mammal oil in the sod houses. (Many in Barrow call the place Monument; a modest-sized concrete monument there commemorates American humorist Will Rogers and aviator Wiley Post who died when the airplane they were flying for a “happy-go-lucky aerial tour” crashed on the site in 1935.)

What had been a mostly stable site was suddenly at mortal risk. Jensen and a team of volunteers worked in the cold to rescue artifacts as the Arctic Ocean lapped right up to their screening buckets. A ground squirrel had burrowed under the excavation area, destabilizing it further; a polar bear wandered 200 meters in the distance. But the crew’s perseverance paid off. The midden they were excavating yielded clay pottery and tools made of baleen, bone, ivory, and myriad other animal parts.

But the following fall, after a storm, Jensen was crestfallen to find the area of Walakpa she had excavated completely gone. In a damage report she wrote following the storm, she mentioned that the exposed soil allowed looters to steal an ice pick, a bucket made of baleen, and possibly a couple of human skulls. Erosion, however, was the main enemy. “We need to find funds for a field season next year if we do not want to risk losing precious cultural heritage,” she wrote. The rest of Walakpa could disappear at any moment, but at least one archeologist in Northern Alaska wasn’t yet willing to concede defeat.

Archaeologist Anne Jensen has the difficult task of evaluating threats to artifacts as the Arctic coastline erodes, taking valuable clues to the past with it. (Joe Van Os)

Funds for a field season have not been found. It is next year. Precious cultural heritage has been lost.

There will be no respite from the waves at Walakpa. There is no strong barrier in place to fully protect Barrow, population 4,400, let alone one to defend this tiny patch of beach that’s known only to the world as the place a pair of Yankees perished eight decades ago.

In lieu of an extended excavation, Jensen has arranged a four-day, five-scientist crew. And in the days before the dig her attention is, as ever, divided. She flies to Kotzebue, 500 kilometers to the south, to do a survey for the telecom company. Then a series of canceled flights keeps her stuck in Fairbanks for a day, her luggage lost by the airline. The dig gets rescheduled and rescheduled again. On the morning of the trip, the packing of the ATVs drags on, with delays for Jensen to send work emails and to collect blood-pressure medication for a member of the team. At Hut 170, she’s fussing over her toiletries. She’s almost out the door when Sheehan says, “And a kiss for your husband?” She stops, smiles, and they share a brief kiss. Outside we all board our vehicles. “Finally,” she declares, “we’re off.”

We arrive at Walakpa after about an hour, in the early afternoon. At the ocean’s edge, the land abruptly ends, forming a high bluff above the sand below. The bluff is cleaved down the middle; from the water, it looks like a 25-meter-wide club sandwich that’s been torn in half. Just last year the bluff, encrusted with artifacts, extended farther out toward the sea by about the length of a small school bus. All that’s there now is salty air.

As the crew unpacks the gear, Jensen lies on her stomach to peer down into the crack, assessing the soil layers that descend to about twice her height and stretch back 4,000 years in time. She lists the dangers to her team: tumbling into the crack, “half a ton of sod falling on you,” “impalement” on stakes, getting crushed by soil. “Nobody goes into the crack,” she declares. Too bad, says geomorphologist Owen Mason, who sees “good wood” of ancient houses in there. Standing in a safe area, Jensen examines the exposed strata. Top layers, still deeper than the researchers went in 1968, could shed light on the most recent occupations. The lower layers could offer clues about when the Paleo-Eskimos first began hunting here. And organic material throughout the strata could shed light on the plants and animals that constituted their world.

With just five days to work, the archaeological team must make a series of painful decisions. “Ideally you’d like to excavate by hand every last inch of everything,” Jensen admits. A full excavation, painstakingly sifting and sorting each level of the soil, is too time consuming, so Jensen opts to bag a bulk sample from each layer and to screen the rest. The team takes what’s called a column sample, digging straight down along the face of the exposed layers. It allows Jensen to preserve the relative position and stratigraphy of the soil and artifacts from each layer. The team debates how wide to make the column: wider means more chance to find items. But Jensen, informed by experience, knows the risks of ambition when time is short. “I’d rather have a narrow, but full, column sample,” she tells her colleagues. (The column sample also comes at a price: it exposes more layers to thawing and erosion.) They “straighten” the bluff face to remove a dangerous overhang, without screening or storing it. “I feel bad doing it, but there’s only so much time,” mutters Jensen.

The delays mount: while Mason carefully records the kinds of layers in the sample—sand, gravel, midden, and marine mammal fat chilled to the consistency of peanut butter—Jensen has to help the field assistants put up a tent, only to discover key metal pieces are missing. And then a local hunter comes by and stops to chat with Jensen. Finally, the scientists select the site for Column Sample 1, or CS1, which measures about the height of an average doorway and about 75 centimeters wide and deep. Excavation reveals wood chips, modified animal bones, and stone flakes. As they excavate, they map the objects’ positions. They document and put the bulk samples into bags that they’ll lug back to Barrow for future analysis. Jensen will later package and mail a quarter of each sample to Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, for the PhD candidate, Laura Crawford, to study. By 2 a.m., the sun has dimmed, though is still up. The team members work until their ability to delineate soil layers dims, too, and then collapse in their tents.

It’s after dinner the next day when Crawford discovers calamity: CS1’s face has collapsed, ruining their work. Later, she says her thoughts ran along the lines of: “Oh shit. What do we do now.” (She was also relieved no one was working at the time. “It could have been disastrous,” she adds.)

“We have to move more quickly,” Jensen tells the others, and then she administers more triage. The team abandons two test layers, just outside the site, that they had been excavating to provide soil comparisons. They begin a new column, CS2—only two-thirds the size of the first—next to CS1, and they dig it with a shovel, not a trowel, taking fewer bulk samples than planned. “Salvage archaeology,” Crawford says.

As the others rush to continue the dig, Jensen commutes back to town on an ATV twice during the week—she’s needed for other work. (“My day job, what are you going to do,” she says.) Before leaving, the group stakes heavy black fabric over the exposed layers to try to protect them from erosion and thawing. “If we don’t get a bad storm, it will be okay. If we do, hasta la pasta,” Jensen says to Mason. Sure enough, after a storm a month later, the half of the “sandwich” facing the ocean is washed away.

The group has long gone its separate ways, back to Idaho and Ohio and Hut 170. Labeled with black marker, the Walakpa bags sit in freezer storage back at NARL. One day soon these bags will be all that’s left of Monument, of Walakpa, of Ualiqpaa. “I’m glad we got the column samples when we did,” Jensen tells me by phone. Do I detect a hint of pride in her voice? Saving Walakpa, it seems, is less about land and more about human determination and dignity. Do what you can, I think to myself, with what you have, where you are.

Reporting for this article was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Read more coastal science stories at

Dear Smitty

Smithsonian Magazine

Our Travel Editor, Smitty

Although British by birth like his namesake James Smithson, Smitty is a gadabout who is at home anywhere from a palace to a rain forest. He sends our writers and photographers around the planet—he'd much rather be sending himself, of course, but someone has to stay home and mind the store. Still, Smitty likes to be kept abreast of what's going on in far-flung places, and so our authors write him letters about their journeys.

Dear Smitty:

Dale Brown Brussels used to leave me indifferent. It doesn't anymore. Headquarters now of both the European Union (EU) and NATO, it has acquired a new sophistication, a new confidence, and is delighted to be known as the political capital of Europe. Despite the glass-and-steel skyscrapers that have sprung up to accommodate the international workforce, it hasn't forfeited its Old World character. Indeed, it seems to have acquired a greater luster and a whole lot more energy than I remember it having in the fifties, when the 1958 world's fair was in full swing and I made my first visit to Belgium.

You have only to go to the Grand Place, Brussels' heart, to feel the city's vibrancy. One of the world's loveliest civic spaces, the large, cobbled, much-peopled square is ringed by tall Gothic and Baroque structures sporting ornamental facades and elaborate, gilded gables adorned with statues. Adding to its charm during the warmer months of the year is a daily flower market, which spreads a colorful living carpet on the pavement. Whenever my wife, Liet, and I come to town, we make a point of sitting at one of the square's outdoor cafés to sip one of Belgium's hundreds of different kinds of beer and take in the scene. First-time visitors might want to try the tart beer Gueuze for an authentic welcome to the city; by some fluke of chemistry, Gueuze can't be duplicated beyond Brussels.

Experience has taught Liet and me that the Grand Place is as good a spot as any to begin (or end) a casual walking tour of the compact center. Behind it is a warren of narrow streets that lead to everything from the Manneken Pis fountain (the bronze statue of a little boy urinating, long the city's symbol) to Brussel's "belly," an area that is crammed with sidewalk bistros and becomes a big, happy party at night.

Close by is one of our favorite Brussels pubs, the convivial A La Morte Subite. Go there for a drink before dinner and see why the high-ceilinged, mirrored room, with its plain, rectangular tables and amber-colored walls, has made it a beloved landmark for more than a century. And it still dispenses the sourish-tasting beer called Morte Subite which, in spite of its name, is not quite as lethal as it might sound—so have a glass.

One of our favorite restaurants is also in the vicinity—Chez Vincent, popular with the Bruxellois since it opened in 1905. We like it for the exuberance of its Belgian clientele, its robust food (steak and fries, with lots of sauce, for example) and its imposing tile murals.

Near the Grand Place as well is the chic Galeries St. Hubert, a serene, glass-roofed shopping arcade dating from 1847. As with all our other Brussels musts, we never fail to visit it, drawn by the 19th-century atmosphere and the luxuriousness of the items for sale, including gorgeous chocolates, displayed in the windows of the chocolatier, Neuhaus, in typical Belgian fashion—with all the artistry reserved in other countries for jewels.

We made a discovery on our last visit to the Galeries, a restaurant called de l'Ogenblik, which means "blink of an eye." It features excellent Belgian cooking in an old-fashioned Belgian setting, right down to the white sand, spread on the wooden floor. As we generally do when dining in Brussels, we ordered fish. In a country where the North Sea is so close, the supply reaching restaurants can always be fresh and is a real treat.

Only blocks from the Grand Place is the area where fishing boats once unloaded their catch (the canal is now filled in); as a reminder of those days, it is home to several outstanding seafood restaurants. Whenever we find ourselves in Brussels, we make a point of having a meal in one of them, but especially at La Truite d'Argent, lured by the quality of its cooking and the charm of the young couple who own it and the adjacent hotel, the Welcome, billed as Brussels' smallest. I should add that we have stayed there—that is, when we have been lucky enough to book a room. I wouldn't call it fancy, but it is warm and cozy. The downstairs breakfast room—where a grandfatherly old man brings the food to table and serves the coffee—boasts an iris-filled Art Nouveau tile mural we love.

Brussels exists on two levels, the flat area comprising the old center, and an upper city. Last time, we hiked up the Mont des Arts, a hill Leopold II cleared of ancient buildings so that the Royal Museums of Fine Arts and the library that now stand there could be built. On the way, we passed the museum devoted to musical instruments, now in its new home, a former Art Nouveau department store known as Old England, with an elegant glass-and-metal front. We had planned an afternoon in the Sablon, Brussels' antiques district, and did not have the time to go into the museum, but on our next visit to the city, most certainly will. Headsets make it possible to hear each of the ancient instruments on display being played, and the restaurant on the top floor, so we have been told, offers good food and a spectacular view of the city.

We enjoy antiquing and consider the Sablon one of the world's best places to do so. Shops along the main and side streets contain a wide range of European treasures, from fine oil paintings to exquisite stemware. When we grow foot weary, we retreat to Wittamer on the Sablon Square, considered Belgium's finest patisserie. There you make your choice from a dizzying array of temptations set out in a gleaming case, to be savored on the terrace outside (weather permitting), with a cup of steaming coffee or cocoa and a beakerful of whipped cream as the sinful accompaniment. Get to the square on a Saturday, and you will be able to attend the open-air antiques market in the shadow of the Gothic church at the end of the square. Here you will find maps and prints, old silver, musical instruments, 19th-century furniture—and perhaps even a bargain.

Not least of Brussels' excitements is the prevalence of Art Nouveau. Noted for its swirling lines and bold plasticity, it flourished during the exuberant era of the Belle Epoque, at the same time that King Leopold was attempting to impose on the city his favorite architectural style, the sedate Beaux Arts. Art Nouveau proved infinitely more popular, at least among progressives, with which the liberal Belgium of the day was filled.

Many of Brussels' drinking holes and cafés still have interiors dating from the period, including Le 19ieme Bar, in the century-old Hotel Metropole, and La Falstaff, with its stained glass Art Nouveau windows and ceiling. Comme Chez Soi, which ranks high on a list of the world's best restaurants, is famous not just for fine cooking but for the quality of its Art Nouveau decor. And if you fancy eating in a town house once visited by Leopold, you can do no better than have dinner at De Ultieme Hallucinatie, which describes itself as a "culinary and architectural dream." But be prepared: here Art Nouveau takes a geometric turn, more straight up and down in line than languidly curvaceous. Perhaps you can convince the headwaiter, as we did, to usher you upstairs to the private rooms, one of which contains a full set of white chairs by the Scots Art-Nouveau designer and architect, Charles Rennie MacIntosh.

A number of other Art Nouveau houses have become museums. Among them is the residence and studio of the great Belgian architect, Victor Horta. This amazing building and its furnishings so whetted our appetite for more Horta that we arranged to tour his masterpiece, the Solvay House, whose rich owner gave the architect carte blanche. Horta responded by designing everything from the telephone to the movable Tiffany-like glass walls for the reception and dining rooms. Upon entering the mansion from an enclosed carriageway, we ascended a flowing central staircase. Here, the woodwork around doorways leading to the rooms surges like a vine reaching out, spreading tendrils, or glides over the walls. The furniture, which the architect also created, seems bent from pliant boughs.

We were quickly becoming Horta fans and made up our minds to see still more of his work, in which the city abounds, but felt that we should seek out first some of the many monuments directly associated with Leopold, whose greenhouses I would be writing about. We made our first stop at the Royal Palace in the upper city, on the broad hill above the Grand Place. The king used it mostly for ceremonies and official business, and lived instead in the royal residence at Laeken, where today Crown Prince Phillipe and his lovely bride, Mathilde, reside. But Leopold being Leopold, he remodeled and enlarged it on a scale matching his ambitions. It stretches a block in length, its facade solemn and earthbound, in marked contrast to the airy lightness of the greenhouses.

We headed next for his Cinquantenaire Arch, which the king erected to mark the 50th anniversary of Belgium's independence from the Netherlands. More perhaps than his other monuments, it demonstrates the lengths to which he went to project national power, no matter how small his kingdom might have been. Intended as an awesome gateway to the city, the arch—spanning three roadways—rears 144 feet high at the head of Avenue de Tervuren, one of the several boulevards Leopold built as part of his plan to turn Brussels into a world capital. Atop the monument is a bronze quadriga, being ridden by the female personification of a triumphant Belgium, arms upthrust. Adding to the arch's drama are the multicolumned Royal Museums of Art and History and the Royal Museum of Army and Military History the king had erected on either side, with the 90-acre Jubilee Park forming a verdant backdrop for all three.

Some six miles away, at the opposite end of the Avenue Tervuren, we found yet another of Leopold's extravaganzas, the Royal Museum of Central Africa. Liet and I got there by tram, which took us through suburbs and a dense beech forest before depositing us at the last stop, a couple of blocks from the museum. Approaching, we beheld a domed building more magnificent than the palace we had seen earlier. The king constructed it to house his extensive collections of African artifacts and examples of the continent's abundant raw materials and flora and fauna. African Museum

The Congolese art on display ranks among the finest in the world, but we could not view the pieces without thinking of the cruelties Leopold's colonial subjects suffered in his quest for material gain. I will not forget easily the crucified black Jesus hanging on a cross in one of the cases. Nor can I get out of my mind the standing, 12-foot-tall brass effigy of Leopold in general's uniform we happened upon in a dark, curtained alcove at the end of a little-visited room. The sheer size of the figure, and the look of omnipotence on the king's face, were frightening.

Next to the statue hangs a full-length portrait of Leopold as a young man, with his famous long nose not yet counterbalanced by the long, broad beard of later life. I found it hard to believe that a fellow as weak looking as this could ever have become such a determined king, much less a monarch who would rule absolutely over a colony more than 60 times the size of Belgium--at an estimated cost of 10 million Congolese lives. Afterward, we needed a walk in the cleansing air of the garden to restore our composure. Then we could go back into Brussels, a world capital at last, but thankfully not the imperial one Leopold long dreamed of it becoming.


Dale Mackenzie Brown

Gut Check: Mandrills Sniff Poop to Avoid Peers With Parasites

Smithsonian Magazine

For humans, disgust can be a powerful evolutionary force. In many ways, it works to keep us safe: Repulsion can cause us to discard damaged fruit (which might have worms in it), refuse to eat spoiled meat (which could hold tapeworm eggs) or avoid unwashed people (who could potentially carry lice). This reaction is so powerful that it can counteract logical reasoning—according to one study, people rejected fudge molded in the shape of dog poop, despite being completely aware that it was just fudge.

But the tendency to avoid gross and potentially harmful things may not be just limited to humans. At France’s Center for Functional and Evolutionary Ecology, a team of scientists has long been studying the evolution of social behavior in primates in a population of roughly 160 mandrills. This species of monkeys is known for its mutual grooming behavior, in which two monkeys will help clean each other's fur in a way that can reduce stress and help build social bonds.

However, the monkeys tended to avoid grooming certain monkeys at certain times, says Clémence Poirotte, a spatial ecology researcher there. Poirotte and her team suspected that the monkeys could be engaging in some kind of quarantine behavior. But they wanted to know: How did the mandrills know which of their peers were infected with parasites, so they could effectively avoid them?

In 2012, they decided to intensively monitor a group of 25 monkeys for 2.5 years to find out. The researchers documented how often each monkey was groomed by its peers in a month, documenting which ones would get shunned and which ones wouldn't. To see which monkeys were infected, they also collected fecal samples for all of the monkeys, which tend to be the main medium for transferring intestinal parasites like the protozoan Balantidium coli. Then they tracked which—if any—parasite infections appeared to correlate with less grooming time.

It turned out that getting infected with B. coli seemed to drive away other mandrills. "Parasitized individuals are less groomed by others," Poirotte concludes in a new study published in the journal Science Advances. Skin swabs found that the anal area of the infected mandrills was rich with potentially contagious B. coli. Not to get too disgusting, but healthy mandrills spend roughly 9 percent of their grooming time focusing on that specific area, according to the study, so grooming an infected monkey would put a mandrill at risk of getting infected itself.

So how did the monkeys know which individuals to avoid? They had developed a highly effective strategy: Smell their poop. Prior studies have found that mandrills have a powerful and sensitive sense of smell, which they use to detect chemical signals related to mating and social cues. And the new analysis of feces from infected mandrills found significant changes in the chemistry of the feces compared to healthy mandrill feces.

Mandrills didn’t seem to like poop with parasites: When researchers smeared two types of feces on sticks and presented them to the mandrills to inspect, they physically recoiled at infected ones, Poirotte says.

Grooming is an important social behavior for most primates, including mandrills. However, it can potentially spread parasites. (Nory EL Ksabi / Science Advances)

It may not be pretty, but having an olfactory cue to avoid sick individuals is a crucial strategy for avoiding parasites, which comprise up to half of the world's estimated 7.7 million species. These freeloaders use other species for protection, food and transport, generally to the detriment of their hosts. However, parasites can't usually live solely off one host animal—because if that animal dies, they lose their main source of sustenance.

Instead, they try to spread their spawn to other members of their host species, often through mediums like feces and other bodily discharge. Animals that lead social lives, therefore, are most at risk. "Parasite transmission is one of the major costs linked to sociability," says Poirotte says. Parasites would have a much harder time spreading if every one of its hosts kept to themselves, but then those host animals would lose all the benefits of being in a herd or having social relationships.

Parasites have evolved a number of strategies to make this spread successful. Some are fairly straightforward; lice, for example, make their homes in human hair, and usually can only spread by crawling or falling into another person's hair with head-to-head contact. Others techniques are downright demonic: some parasites hijack the brains and nervous systems of animals to make Artemia shrimp get eaten by flamingos, crickets drown themselves, and cockroaches become the enslaved hosts for parasite eggs.

In response to these atrocities, host animals too have gotten creative with their survival strategies. Biologists have documented a long-running "evolutionary arms race" between the two, with hosts constantly developing new defenses against the parasites’ changing survival strategies. Hosts employ strategies from healing saliva (which animals can use to cover wounds and prevent parasites from colonizing) to tail-swatting instincts (which ward away bloodsucking insects) to immune system defenses (which can kill parasites more effectively).

Behaviors like social avoidance represent yet another kind of anti-parasite defense, part of what University of British Columbia psychologist Mark Schaller has dubbed the "behavioral immune system.

What does that entail, exactly? "It's a suite of psychological mechanisms designed to detect the presence of disease-causing parasites in our immediate environment, and to respond to those things in ways that help us to avoid contact with them," Schaller wrote in an article for Scientific American.

While not directly applicable to humans, Poirotte says that this study does throw into relief the great lengths that humans go to in order to stay far away from each other’s bodily waste. Pipes and waste treatment facilities are a kind of avoidance strategy to avoid any contact that could lead to potential sickness, she points out.

The study marks “a significant contribution to the field," says Martin Kavaliers, a behavioral neuroscientist at Canada's Western University. Kavaliers, who wasn’t involved in the study, adds that it’s one of just a few studies that have confirmed social avoidance behavior in animals. Some human studies have also found that the odor of a person injected with a bacteria-produced endotoxin is more repulsive to other people—perhaps representing a similar defense against getting too close to sick people.

Next, Poirotte plans to look more closely at why some of the mandrills appeared more adept at avoiding infected peers than others, and whether this helped them stay healthy. In the future, she also hopes to study gray mouse lemurs, a small primate species in Madagascar that appears to be succumbing to increasing parasitic infections as it loses its habitat to deforestation, to see whether the species is evolving any behaviors to compensate for this.

If you find yourself the unintended host for a parasite in the near future, don’t lose hope. Fortunately, in mandrills as in humans, social avoidance generally doesn’t last forever. In the study, the researchers actually cured 16 monkeys of their parasitic infections with medication and found that they shortly started receiving much greater amounts of grooming again, says Poirotte.

Day 1: The Stage Is Set at Cannes

Smithsonian Magazine

It's the day before the opening of the fabled, fabulous Cannes Film Festival. Everything is in disarray. The halls of the Palais des Festivals, the building at the heart of the festival, are full of packing boxes and big blue refuse containers with poster tubes sticking out of them. On one wall is a huge photograph of a bunch of men on bicycles, nude. On wide stone staircases there are inexplicable drifts of chunky sawdust, as if someone has been chain-sawing the banisters. There seem to be shards of automotive window glass scattered down one upper-level flight of stairs, and I can't figure that out, either.

Finally it dawns on me with the warped insight that sometimes seems to drive the whole process of making and distributing films, at least as far as I've experienced it. Why of course – they've been filming a logging-camp cyclist-vs.-cop car chase scene in here and they haven't cleaned it all up yet.

It's Cannes, and you'd better not make any assumptions about what is real or imagined. This is the ultimate celebration of the movies, a marriage of Hollywood creative dealmaking and French glamour, spun out over 12 days in May in air like cotton candy. Here what you think you know might turn out to be imagined, and the crazy things you dreamed about might come true.

In a way, that's a bit why my wife, Suzanne Chisholm, and I are here.

A little backstory: A few years ago I got an assignment from Smithsonian Magazine to write an article about a baby orca nicknamed Luna, who was separated from his pod in a fjord on the coast of Vancouver Island and started trying to make friends with people. That was in the early spring of 2004.

As I wrote in the article, the little whale's story got completely out of hand with controversy, conflict, funny things, and sad things. After we turned in the story (it was published in November, 2004), things got even crazier, and Suzanne and I wound up making a movie about the little whale's extraordinary life.

Completely unexpectedly, what we thought was going to be a little TV show turned into a full-length feature documentary, "Saving Luna," which went to festivals, won awards in various parts of the world, and is ready for a possible US theatrical release this fall. Now, at the culmination of all these things, it is about to be shown in, of all places, Cannes.

But here's the part that most people don't know about the Cannes Film Festival. Our film is not exactly in the festival. Instead it is to be shown as part of what's called the Marché du Film. This is the largest single market for movies in the world, a hidden festival behind the Festival, which in many ways is just as important to the fate of the movies as the festival itself.

Eighty-four films are shown as official selections for the festival, including only 20 feature films in competition. Many of them are magnificent and artistic, but esoteric, and they will not come to a theatre near you for some time if ever. But a lot of the films you have seen and actually will see – in theatres, TV specials, movie channels, your rental store, and through pay-per-view and video on demand, pass through the Marché.

As of today, 4,257 films are listed here by sales agents, and there are a total of 1,576 screenings of some of those films during the festival. (Some films are screened more than once.) So films like ours are herded through many elegant theatres on and off the festival ground like racehorses in various states of enthusiasm or exhaustion, to be bid on by cantankerous distributors from all over the world.

Our film is one of the thousand. It'll be screened in a 60-seat theatre early in the festival, and our sales agent has been busy for the past weeks inviting distributors to come. We have no idea if any of them will show up at all.

This might seem depressing, to have spent five years of our lives making a movie only to find it hidden among thousands far behind the flashiness of the big festival. But it isn't. That's because this is Cannes.

Some films are made like commercials, by skilled, cold hearts for commerce alone, but many are people like us, who care about both the craft of the medium and the story they have told. And if nothing else, Cannes is a place that recognizes and honors that fundamental piece of this industry.

The main festival officially values individual creativity in film, and often makes unexpected picks for its big award, the Palme d'Or, which can bring new filmmakers out of obscurity to a lifetime of prominence and achievement. The Marché du Film is a bit more pragmatic; no Cinderella stories here. Nevertheless, the buzz of good storytelling floats through the Marché as well, and this is the place where the most profound magic outside of the actual making of a film happens: It makes it possible for your film to be seen.

We are as hungry for that as for anything in our lives. And so are all the hundreds of other filmmakers here. We are all like a bunch of storytellers gathered around the world's campfire, ready to amuse, scare, move, or, we hope, enlighten. But when a film first comes to the Marché, the fire isn't built and the listeners have not yet come around.

Cannes and the Marché are places that can build the fire and gather the people. But will it happen to us? Will distributors come around? Only maybe. It's a tough business in a tough time. Documentaries are selling these days about as fast as used videocassette recorders, and it will take more than just a great salesman to plant "Saving Luna" on the world map. We'll also have to be lucky. But that's the crazy dream, and this is Cannes.

So today we navigate around the open boxes and poster tubes and watch throngs of French workers sweep up the sawdust and the glass and roll out green floor cover. Then we head back to our relatively cheap hotel room (very relative), which Suzanne has called "The Stateroom" to give it a nautical flavor and get us used to its size.

We stop on the curb of the Boulevard de la Croisette outside the Palais des Festivals and look at the place where the celebrities from the film world will walk upward tomorrow on a red pathway in a haze of strobe sparkle. But right now a bunch of men who will never be famous are building the foundation of that rise, the stairs.

"I have a new saying," Suzanne says as we turn to leave. "Underneath red carpet there's always plywood." She smiles. Enigmatically.

It sounds like a line from a film. I guess you have to figure it out for yourself. I'm still working on it.

Could Noah’s Ark Float? In Theory, Yes

Smithsonian Magazine

Noah has a lot going for him, in the biblical tale and in the recent Hollywood adaptation. Divine help would be a pretty useful tool in a quest to round up two of every species on the planet and build a gigantic ark to survive an apocalyptic flood. But, is the story rooted in truth or is it merely fable?

Scholars and passionate internet commenters have long debated that question. There are quite a few holes in Noah’s story. Geological evidence of epic flooding exists, but tying it to mythical flood stories is tricky. It doesn't help that archaeologists have made multiple false claims of discovering the ark on top of mountains across the Middle East.

However, the Bible is clear on one thing: Noah got specific instructions for the ark’s dimensions (300 cubits long, 50 cubits wide and 30 cubits high) and material (“gopher wood”). Gopher wood may refer to pine, cedar, or cypress wood.

So, if one could hypothetically build an ark to the specifications outlined in the Bible, and actually cram two of every species on the boat, would it float or would Noah have found himself in a Titanic-like scenario? That’s what four physics graduate students at the University of Leicester wondered. As part of a special course that encourages the students to apply basic physics principles to more general questions, the team did the math and found that an ark full of animals in those dimensions could theoretically float. They recently published their research in a peer-reviewed, student-run publication, the Journal of Physics Special Topics.

“You don’t think of the Bible necessarily as a scientifically accurate source of information, so I guess we were quite surprised when we discovered it would work,” said Thomas Morris, one of the students who worked on the project, in a statement.

To float, a boat has to exert the same amount of force on the ocean as the weight of the water it displaces. This buoyancy force is essentially the biggest weight the ark could hold and not sink. To put it another way, an object with a density greater than water will sink. So if the Bible gives an approximate volume of the ark, and after factoring in the mass of the wood used to build it, one could figure out how much mass the system could take before it becomes more dense than water and sinks.

Now that we've defined the constraints on the system...what in the world is a cubit? Ancients defined a cubit as the distance from a person's elbow to tip of their middle finger. In modern units, this can typically range from 45.5 centimeters to 52.3 centimeters.

In their study, students decided on an average length for their calculations: 48.2 centimeters. This means that, by their approximations, the ark would have been 144.6 meters long, 24.1 meters wide, and 14.46 meters tall—the size of a very small cargo ship. They went with cypress wood, though pine and cedar wood have similar densities. Using the density of cypress, they calculated the weight of this hypothetical ark: 1,200,000 kilograms (by comparison the Titanic weighed about 53,000,000 kilograms). Based on the density of sea water, they figured out that an empty box-shaped ark would float with it's hull only dipping 0.34 meters into the water.

But what about an ark filled with human and animal cargo? Working backwards they assumed that the maximum weight would put the waterline right just below the top of the ark—if the ark is immersed beyond it's full height, water would spill into the vessel and the ark would capsize.

Forcing the bulk of the ark down into the water while still keeping it afloat would displace about 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools worth of sea water. Knowing the volume of displaced sea water, and knowing that an object in water displaces its own weight, they crunched the numbers and found the total mass needed to displace that water. They subtracted the mass of an empty ark and found that the ark could hold 50,540,000 kg. For some perspective: the average sheep is about 23.47 kilograms, so the biblical boat could have held about 2.15 million sheep.

Fitting two of each of all the world's animals in the ark is an entirely different matter, and scientists question how many species Noah would have needed to save to produce the modern populations of species that inhabit our planet today. Scientists have characterized about 1.7 million species to date, so the students argue that, if the average mass of species represented on the ark was the average mass of sheep, the ark would theoretically have been able to accommodate them all without capsizing. However, some estimates put the total number of discovered and undiscovered species on Earth closer to 8.7 million, which would make for a lot of wet proxy sheep.

Could Noah's ark really have handled 8.7 million species? It seems unlikely, but biblical scholars and creationists have a workaround, arguing that the number of animals needed on the ark could be reduced to "kinds" instead of species and then suggesting that God introduced the possibility of endless hereditary variety into the genetic material of passengers and animals on the ark. Their estimates put Noah's cargo from around 2,000 to 50,000 animals. Marine life, of course, could stay in the ocean—two blue whales on deck would not only die but capsize any ship.

Even if one could fit all the needed animals on the boat, and if those animals could survive the cramped cruise (the study made no estimates regarding the weight of the food or freshwater needed to sustain the ark population), building a seaworthy vessel is another factor.

A boat sunk to its max in the water while still staying afloat could easily take on water from any breaching waves. And according to Euler-Bernoulli beam theory, the strength of a wooden beam decreases with its size, so because when things get bigger they break more easily, the beams that held this huge ark together might have been extremely fragile. Else the beams were short, which would also introduce structural weaknesses due to the higher number of seams between wood planks.

The students are quite clear about the fact that their study does not settle debate over the veracity of Noah’s story. “We’re not proving that it’s true, but the concept would definitely work,” said Morris.

Regardless, given the growing threat of climate change, it’s comforting to know that that should rising sea levels engulf coastal cities, 2.15 million sheep can, in theory, float on a cypress wood ark the size of a small cargo ship.

King of The Mud Dragons

Smithsonian Magazine

A serrated rostrum of a sawfish shares wall space with a dozen or so carved wooden masks from Madagascar, Tahiti, Chile, Peru, and beyond. Behind the couch hang four paintings—Chinese landscapes delicately rendered on silk—each depicting a season. On the bookshelf, 80 or so small flags stand at attention, lined up like a miniature United Nations court of flags—one for every country Robert Higgins visited in his lifelong quest for dragons.

Now 85, Higgins’s dragon-hunting days have passed, but the work he pioneered continues—younger searchers are off on modern expeditions. And while the world Higgins traveled was large, the world he studied was not. He spent a lifetime searching for animals smaller than the dot on a 12-point i. His specialty is a group of marine organisms called kinorhynchs, aka mud dragons.

Mud dragons are just one type of meiofauna, animals so diminutive they live between grains of sediment. They swim through the watery film surrounding each grain, or navigate the terrain of sand and mud—veritable mountains to scale—using suction pads, hooks, or tiny toes. Just a handful of marine sediment is a meiofauna metropolis. They’re so numerous that under a single footprint on moist sand there could be up to 100,000 individuals. A brief walk, say just 85 steps, might tromp over eight and a half million organisms, a number equivalent to the population of New York City.

For over 60 years, Robert Higgins (right) traveled the world collecting microscopic meiofauna from their sand and mud habitats. Here, in the late 1980s in a makeshift laboratory on a hotel terrace, Higgins and his colleague Fernando Pardos search for life in samples collected earlier in the day on the coast of Santander, Spain. (Photo courtesy of Fernando Pardos)

But for a group of animals so plentiful, they are little known and poorly understood, except by a dedicated few. Meiofauna means lesser or smaller animals, and Higgins has spent a lifetime challenging such a dismissive descriptor. Far from being “lesser,” to him this abundance of life speaks of endless opportunity. Higgins’s passion has been to bring these animals the due they deserve, to bring the obscure out of obscurity.

Forget Daenerys Targaryen, mother of dragons, and her quest for the Iron Throne—Robert Higgins was the original. This father of dragons has been building his kingdom since he snagged his first mud dragon over 60 years ago.

Today, Higgins lives in a modest two-bedroom apartment in a retirement community in Asheville, North Carolina. Widowed in 2010 after his beloved wife, Gwen, died of cancer, he shares the space with a fluffy, white Havanese, Susie, who today is tricked out in a pink, ruffled collar. A talented artist, he spends some time oil painting—a recent subject is Echo, his African gray parrot of 30 years—but is still keenly interested in meiofauna research, and signs of his life’s work fill his home.

A balsa wood model of a mud dragon is prominent atop his media cabinet. The model was once on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History, where Higgins spent 27 years. “They had a terrible model of a kinorhynch,” he says, “so I carved this one.”

About the length of his forearm, Higgins’s model is no delicate tchotchke. Scaled up to about 500 times the actual size of the largest kinorhynch, the model brings to life the 13-segment creature, with its retractable head covered in recurved spines. To move through the sediment, a mud dragon thrusts its head out of its cylinder-like body, hooks its spines on the grains of sediment, and then hauls itself forward. Its mode of locomotion explains the etymology of kinorhynch, Greek for moveable snout.

Nearby, a packed bookcase speaks to Higgins’s fascination with the natural world—several atlases, titles on birds and insects, the textbook Cell Structure and Function. The lower shelves hold two bulging black binders filled with copies of Higgins’s professional publications, all neatly collated in color-coded plastic sleeves. Together, they form a paper trail, documenting a career spent searching for life in the world’s sediments.

Robert Higgins samples the bottom sediment for meiofauna in the waters near the Smithsonian Marine Station in Fort Pierce, Florida. Various sampling devices including corers and dredges are used to gather the top layers of sediment, which is the most oxygenated and hospitable to meiofauna. (Photo courtesy of Robert Higgins)

Higgins’s travels with meiofauna began in 1952, when he arrived as an undergrad at the University of Colorado Boulder, fresh-faced and buzz cut, newly released from the Marine Corps. In his second year there, he met professor Robert Pennak, who introduced him to the world of invertebrates, including tardigrades, a type of meiofauna so pudgy they’re called moss piglets or water bears.

Pennak hired Higgins for 35 cents an hour to work in the university’s moss and lichen herbarium, where he’d regularly find hundreds of microscopic animals, including water bears, in the moss samples. “If you take a lush piece of moss, put it in a bowl of water and squeeze it … you have about a 50 percent chance of finding a tardigrade,” he says.

Higgins was enamored by the tenacity of tardigrades, with their death-defying adaptions to desiccation, freezing, radiation, and other extreme environmental stresses. So after taking every available course on invertebrates and completing his bachelor’s degree, he went on to do a master’s degree on the life history of a tardigrade species living in the mosses of the Boulder region.

He thought about staying at Boulder for a PhD on water bears, but Pennak encouraged his protégé to go elsewhere, and also delivered some prophetic advice. “He said, ‘Do something no one else has done, and then you make your own science,’” recalls Higgins. “I was quite affected by that.”

Tardigrades are also called water bears or moss piglets. They are a well-studied group of meiofauna, famous for their ability to withstand numerous environmental stressors. Tardigrades were Robert Higgins’s first introduction to meiofauna and the subject of his master’s thesis. (Photo by Papilio/Alamy Stock Photo)

Higgins applied to five universities, was accepted to five, and chose Duke University in North Carolina. But between leaving the Colorado mountains and arriving on Duke’s Atlantic shore, Higgins made a trip to the Pacific for a summer fellowship at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor marine laboratory. Before he left, Pennak asked Higgins to try to collect a few samples he was lacking in his teaching collection, including kinorhynchs.

Even though he’d never seen a kinorhynch, Higgins accepted the mission. Within days of arriving, he was on a boat dredging sediment from the seafloor. Back in the lab, he was confronted with a bucket of mud and water and the tactical problem of trying to extract minute creatures from the crud. “Self, how the heck am I going to go through all this mud?” Higgins recalls of the moment.

The only information he had on technique was from the one scientist who had previously found a few kinorhynchs at Friday Harbor. Squeezing a pipette, she’d added bubbles one by one to the sample, relying on the physics of bubbles to find the animals. The exoskeletons of kinorhynchs and other hard-bodied meiofauna are hydrophobic—they repel water—causing them to stick on the bubbles in the surface film.

Higgins tried the method, picking the speck-sized animals off the water surface using a small tool with a tiny wire loop at one end, but it was tedious work. After an hour, he’d managed to snag just four; his days of squeezing dozens of tardigrades out of Colorado moss seemed halcyon in retrospect. But, just as a weak batch of adhesive gave 3M its Post-it note, a fumble in the lab that day proved serendipitous, perhaps not for the world, but at least for those trying to separate infuriatingly small creatures from a slurry of sand and water.

Higgins accidentally dropped a piece of paper into the water and when he pulled it out, it was covered in specks. He washed the sample into a petri dish and took a look under the scope—kinorhynchs were everywhere. The low-tech, highly effective technique, “bubble and blot,” was born. And so was Higgins’s life’s work.

The senior researchers at Friday Harbor were astounded when Higgins showed them the wealth of kinorhynchs he’d managed to find, and after working on the samples for his summer term’s research paper—and finding a paucity of literature on kinorhynchs—Pennak’s advice was staring him in the face. He’d found his “something” that few people knew anything about.


Back at Duke in the fall, with his Friday Harbor kinorhynch collection in tow, Higgins informed his PhD supervisor that he was switching from moss piglets to mud dragons. His adviser admitted he wouldn’t be much help—he knew next to nothing about kinorhynchs—but provided what support he could. “He bought me the equipment I needed and turned me loose,” says Higgins.

Higgins worked through the hundreds of mud dragons he’d collected, painstakingly detailing the morphological minutiae of spines and scalids, oral styles and cuticular hairs. The seven species he’d found were undescribed, which left the meticulous work of scientific description up to him. “Doing my thesis on the life history of kinorhynchs got me started,” he says, “and that got me everything.”

He became an expert in kinorhynchs, and quickly became the go-to taxonomist for that phylum as well as many other groups of meiofauna. Soon researchers from around the world leaned on his skills, shipping all manner of unidentified animals his way. “Send them to Bob, he works on these weird things,” Higgins later recounted in a speech.

But Higgins didn’t want to remain the only guy who works on weird things. As he progressed in his career from Duke to Wake Forest University and finally to the National Museum of Natural History, where he served as curator in the department of invertebrate zoology, he nurtured a community of researchers who collectively animated the hidden micro-kingdoms below our feet.

In 1966, he cofounded the International Association of Meiobenthologists and launched its newsletter, with an eye to keeping the communication, both professional and personal, flowing. Three years later, while working for the Smithsonian in Tunis, Tunisia, he co-convened the first International Conference on Meiofauna. Twenty-eight participants from seven countries attended. It was a start.


Almost 50 years after Higgins first snagged some mud dragons on a sheet of paper, María Herranz, a kinorhynch biologist doing a postdoc at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, is bubbling and blotting the sediment sample she collected that morning near the Hakai Institute’s Calvert Island Ecological Observatory on British Columbia’s central coast. As she works, she recounts the story of how Higgins discovered the technique—with slight tweaks as one expects in an as-told-to story (her version had Higgins with a cold, and a tissue in his shirt pocket falling into the sample). The details of paper versus tissue don’t matter so much, but what is clear is the legacy that has come down via the generations from when Higgins was pretty much on his own studying kinorhynchs, and today, when the international kinorhynchologist club has grown to about 10.

Out sampling, Herranz uses a dredge, modeled after one designed by Higgins, to grab the top layer of mud . (“The first five to 10 centimeters is where the action is,” explains Higgins, “that’s where it’s still oxygenated.”) All the other dredges he’d tried dug too deep, so Higgins designed one. Rather than patent it, and hold the idea close, he readily shared the plans with any researchers who asked so they could build their own.

When she’s ready to strain the creatures she’s blotted from the mud slurry, Herranz uses a small net (think butterfly net meets coffee filter). It’s another Higgins-designed piece of equipment used by kinorhynch researchers, and each one was sewn by his wife, Gwen. The net’s resemblance to a bra cup—a pointy vintage number—was not lost on a crewman on one of Higgins’s research expeditions who saucily held the net to his chest. The name “mermaid bra” stuck and regularly makes its way into the methodology section of scientific papers. During her lifetime, Gwen made nets for anyone who asked and they all came with a label and serial number. Herranz’s reads: Gwen-Made Ltd., Mermaid Bra, SN 070703. (To recognize Gwen’s contribution to the science, Herranz named a new species of kinorhynch after her: Antygomonas gwenae.)

Herranz has never met Higgins, but his name comes up often in her kinorhynch work. There’s bubble and blot, the dredge, the mermaid bra, the meiofauna bible—Introduction to the Study of Meiofauna—he coauthored, but most importantly there is lineage. Higgins and Herranz are linked by Fernando Pardos, a zoologist at Complutense University of Madrid, who encouraged Herranz to study kinorhynchs instead of jellyfish, a suggestion strikingly similar to the encouragement Higgins once gave him.

The mermaid bra is standard equipment in meiofauna research. The net was designed by Robert Higgins and for years sewn for researchers around the world by his wife, Gwen. Here, Robert Higgins and Reinhardt Kristensen ham it up at the Den Lille Havfrue (the Little Mermaid) in Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo courtesy of Reinhardt Møbjerg Kristensen)

In 1986, fresh from completing his PhD, Pardos, then 30, was applying for a university teaching position. In preparation for the interview, and anticipating he’d be asked to teach invertebrate zoology, he was searching for information on a newly described group of meiofauna. Pardos knew Higgins had been involved with the discovery, so he wrote him a letter asking for information.

“To my surprise, Bob Higgins answered with a stack of scientific papers and a letter,” says Pardos. In the chatty letter, Higgins noted that his specialty was phylum Kinorhyncha and added a sentence that would send any ready-to-launch zoologist’s heart aflutter: “Did you know there is nobody studying [kinorhynchs] in Spain?”

Just as Pennak had encouraged Higgins to study something that no one else was, Higgins was offering the opportunity of a lifetime to Pardos. And it came with room and board. In his letter, Higgins invited Pardos to stay with him and Gwen in Washington, DC, despite never having met the young student. “These are the kind of things that happen maybe once in your life,” says Pardos. “My only English was, ‘My tailor is rich,’ but I traveled to the States and I found there the most generous people, both in personal terms and in scientific terms.”

Pardos and Higgins spent two weeks together in the summer of 1989, one in Washington at the National Museum of Natural History, and one at the Smithsonian’s field station in Fort Pierce, Florida.

“Bob opened my eyes to the meiofauna world,” says Pardos. “He was so enthusiastic and could transmit the excitement of seeing something that very few zoologists have seen.” He recalls a quiet moment in the lab when they were both at the microscope looking through samples, when Higgins cried out, “Kiiiiiiiiii-no-rhynch!” “This may have been his 100,000th kinorhynch, but he looked as excited as the first time,” says Pardos, adding that when he found his very first mud dragon, Higgins took him out for a beer. “It was the first time I’d seen a kinorhynch alive and I thought, ‘This is fascinating.’ I am still fascinated.”

From that initial time together, Pardos and Higgins forged a strong bond that persists to this day. The summer after Pardos’s stint in the United States, the pair met on the north coast of Spain where they collected and described the first two species of Spanish mud dragons. Their collaborations continued until Higgins’s retirement, but they still have long chats on the phone every few months during which Pardos passes on research updates. “He is absolutely curious about my work and he’s very proud,” says Pardos.

With Pardos and other colleagues from the meiofauna nexus, Higgins traveled the world collecting wherever he could, taking along a portable dredge—the “mini-meio”—in his impeccably packed luggage. No meiofauna anywhere was safe from his shovel and sieve. Higgins was encouraged by the Smithsonian to describe and collect what he could, snagging life from marine sediments, piecing together a picture of life in the mysterious muck animal by animal. His work created an international repository of meiofaunal life, an essential time capsule given that coastal habitats are dredged and polluted with astonishing speed.

Meiofauna live within moist sediments throughout the world. Robert Higgins (left) and his colleagues Yoshihisa Shirayama, from Tokyo, Japan, and Supawadee Chullasorn, from Thailand, search for meiofauna on a Japanese beach. (Photo courtesy of Robert Higgins)

And the collection is still a meiofauna mother lode for contemporary researchers. “There is more than one scientific life of work waiting there,” says Pardos, who regularly sends students to the Smithsonian for research, scouring Higgins’s collection of prepared microscope slides and tiny vials with their impeccably lettered labels.

In a world with macroscopic spectacles such as Komodo dragons, sea dragons, snapdragons, and dragonflies, it might seem like the epitome of obscure pursuits to geek out on row after row of jars and slides and lipstick-sized vials housing microscopic mud dragons and other species from this nanosized wonderland. But as with many scientific pursuits, you never know where a serendipitous sample causes a life to zig when it might have zagged.

Higgins recognizes that serendipity—“my old friend” as he once called it—is a central character in his life story: a sheet of paper falls into a bucket, a letter from Spain crosses a desk, an almost-missed train leads to the discovery of an entirely new life form.


Years before Pardos received his life-changing letter from Higgins, another meiofauna researcher, Reinhardt Kristensen, was sampling the sediment near the Roscoff Marine Station on the coast of Brittany, France. It was his last day in the field and he was racing against the train schedule. Kristensen, then a senior lecturer at the University of Copenhagen and a colleague of Higgins’s through the meiofauna network, was processing a large sample, preserving it for future study. The protocol for separating the meiofauna from its sediment is multistep, but Kristensen didn’t have time, so instead he quickly rinsed the sample with fresh water. The temporary salt imbalance shocked the creatures within, causing them to loosen their grips on the sediment. He strained them into a vial, and was off to catch the evening train to Copenhagen.

Several months later, in the fall of 1982, newly arrived at the Smithsonian Institution to do a postdoc in Higgins’s lab, he showed his colleague one of the unfamiliar animals he’d collected that day near Roscoff. It looked familiar to Higgins. “I went over to the cupboard and pulled out a little vial and dumped it into a petri dish. They were the same things, or species of the same things,” Higgins says.

Eight years before, Higgins had found a single specimen of this type of animal among thousands of meiofauna collected on a six-day expedition off the North Carolina coast. From the moment he looked at it under the scope, Higgins knew he had something special on his hands, but with only one specimen, there was little he could do but preserve it and file it in his collection. “Every once in a while, I’d take it out of the cabinet to take a look,” he says.

When you’re working with poorly studied yet ubiquitous animals, finding organisms new to science is not uncommon. (As Pardos notes, “Every time I look at a sample, I see more things that I don’t know than things I do.”) But while finding a new species may be almost routine, the higher up you move on the classification ladder, through class, order, family, and such, finding new animals that deserve an entirely new grouping is increasingly implausible. And discovering an organism different enough to warrant its own phylum comes only to a rare few. After all, all known animal life on Earth—to date almost one million species and counting—is categorized into one of only 35 phyla.

And a new phylum is just what Higgins and Kristensen had on the lab table before them.

This illustration shows the loriciferan Pliciloricus enigmaticus, the species found by Robert Higgins off the Atlantic coast. (Illustration by Carolyn Gast, National Museum of Natural History/Wikipedia)

An ocean apart, the two men had discovered two species of a new kind of animal. Higgins had found an adult of one species in 1974, and Kristensen found the full life cycle—adult and larval stages—of another species in 1982. Using the Latin words loricus (corset) and fero (to bear), they called the phylum Loricifera, the “girdle wearer,” to reflect the corset-like rings making up the animal’s armored cuticle.

After painstakingly detailing the original specimen for their proposed new phyla, Kristensen, now curator at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, made the announcement of their discovery with details of Nanaloricus mysticus, the “mysterious girdle wearer,” to the world in a 1983 paper. Loricifera was one of only four new phyla described in the 20th century.

In honor of his colleague’s contribution, Kristensen named the loriciferan’s larval stage the Higgins larva. “That was my payoff and a wonderful one,” says Higgins.


Beside the balsa wood kinorhynch on Higgins’s media cabinet, sits another sculpture—this one a 3D computer-generated glass model of Pliciloricus enigmaticus, the loriciferan Higgins found off the North Carolina coast. The art piece, which renders the animal in delicate bubbles, was made by Kristensen and created in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the publication of the new phylum Loricifera.

Kristensen and Higgins continued to work together throughout the rest of Higgins’s career, in the United States and around the world, discovering and naming many new species, including a loriciferan they named for Gwen Higgins—Nanaloricus gwenae. As with Fernando Pardos, Higgins was a professional colleague, a mentor, and a generous personal friend to Kristensen and his family. At times, Higgins, who is 16 years older, offered some life skills to help the young scientist launch his career. He gave him pointers on delivering scientific talks for instance, and even instructions on how to tie a tie. “You can’t go to meet a president without a proper knot,” says Kristensen. It was a life skill that came in handy as the men were recognized for their discovery in several ceremonies, including one at the Smithsonian hosted by then-US vice president George H. W. Bush, and another in Denmark where they were honored by Queen Margrethe II.

But for all of the accolades—the times his colleagues have added higginsi to a newly discovered animal; the hundreds of scientific papers with Robert Higgins as contributing author; and even to his part in discovering a new phylum of animals—it is the work that Higgins has done to build networks, foster relationships, and share generously that is, perhaps, his greatest legacy.

At its core, at its purest non-cynical, non-competitive center, science is about sharing. Through journals, researchers share their discoveries; at conferences, they speak a common language with their peers, reveling in the knowledge that, for a few days at least, they’re not the only wonk in the room; in the field, they slog through the mud and haul nets, and share a beer at the end of a hard day. And, just as for Higgins’s prized meiofauna, where a magnificent world unfolds in the interstitial spaces between the grains of sand, for scientists it is often in the interstices between all the formalities—a chance comment over coffee, a tossed out phrase in a presentation, a brief mention of something observed or collected or pondered—where the wonder happens.

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