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Will the Next Great Scientific Discovery Be Made by Amateurs?

Smithsonian Magazine

In 2016, a bright purple ribbon glowed over Alberta, Canada, and the scientists who study aurora borealis—the northern lights—didn’t even know it was there. Reports started to come in from night-sky watchers, enthusiasts with cameras and the skills to document the aurora, affectionately named Steve, which was unusually far south for an aurora. These hobbyists had access to the scientists—and a way to share their experiences and data, thanks to Aurorasaurus, a crowdsourced aurora-reporting tool built by a collaboration including members of NASA, Penn State University, a university-industry collaboration called The New Mexico Consortium, and Science Education Solutions a small R&D company that works with science education curricula and programs.

“Their cameras and knowledge were in a location where we hadn’t had a lot of measurements,” says Liz MacDonald, a program scientist at NASA who also works on the Aurorasaurus project. “Their photos revealed something that we hadn’t understood well, and have really contributed to basically better understanding of the way the aurora works.” Scientists paired the photos with satellite observations, and are using the results to try to determine the cause of this unique aurora.

“Technologies that we have now accessible to us—smartphones and the internet—all of these things allow us to be better connected where observations and human computing power can contribute to big problems.”

The aurora hunters who used Aurorasaurus are a shining example of the growing influence of citizen scientists who, enabled by computing power, apps, and increasing acceptance from researchers, are contributing directly to scientific research.

Citizen science is the subject of a panel MacDonald is hosting this week at Future Con in Washington, DC, a three-day science, technology and entertainment celebration inside Awesome Con June 16-18. Featuring also Kristen Weaver, an outreach specialist at NASA who is deputy coordinator of GLOBE Observer, a citizen science program that tracks all sorts of data about the natural world, Sophia Liu, an innovation specialist at the US Geological Survey who is also co-chair of the Federal Community of Practice on Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science, and Jessica Rosenberg, an astronomer who has worked extensively with citizen science projects, the panel will address some of the successful examples of collaboration between scientists and amateur scientists, as well as offer tips on how to get involved.

Centuries ago, all scientists were citizen scientists, either funded by patrons or on their own. It was with the advent of the modern university system that the field started to require degrees, points out Shane Larson, a research associate professor at Northwestern’s Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics and an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium. Larson is a co-investigator on Gravity Spy, a project that asks volunteers to distinguish gravitational waves from glitches in data provided by laser interferometers, which use lasers to measure the stretching of space by gravity, but he isn’t on the Future Con panel.

But the balance is again tipping toward including amateurs in the practice of science. The practice of crowdsourcing data collection goes back nearly as far as modern science. Sometimes it involves gathering data, other times it’s about data analysis. Some of the better examples include the Christmas Bird Count, in which birdwatchers spend a day in December tallying species, and the 1975 discovery of monarch butterfly migration routes, which relied on amateurs tagging butterflies and scientists finding them in their wintering grounds. More recently, as computers have evolved, scientists have developed tools to use spare processing power to parse data, such as SETI@home, which uses a program downloaded to private PCs to analyze radio telescope data for signs of intelligent extraterrestrials. 

It's a shift necessitated by the change in how scientific discovery is done. “Today, the amount of data that we can collect as scientists is far too large for us to analyze in any kind of expedited manner,” says Larson. “The truth is, many of the things we’re trying to understand require enormous amounts of data, and if it takes us a long time to analyze that data we’re never going to arrive at an answer.”  That’s where the public comes in.

Projects like Gravity Spy rely on humans to compare data or images and categorize them in an online survey. For example, in another project, called Galaxy Zoo, participants look at a picture of a galaxy, and determine whether it is shaped like a spiral, a football, or something else.

“Humans can look at an image from a telescope very quickly, and say, that’s a spiral galaxy—they click on ‘spiral’, it classifies it and the goes to the next image,” says Larson. “Teaching a computer to do that is really really hard.”

Gravity Spy and Galaxy Zoo are part of the Zooniverse platform, one of several programs designed to leverage crowdsourced research. Another is SciStarter, which not only hosts projects but also pursues other avenues to bring scientists and citizen scientists together.

That opportunity to interact with scientists who may actually use your data is one of the things that makes participating in these projects compelling, says panelist Kristen Weaver. In an educational setting, it can mean adding real-world impact to work that would otherwise be just an exercise.

“What’s great about citizen science is that it brings that direct, concrete connection to people,” says Weaver. “Everyone can be a scientist, and I think that making that connection between people doing citizen science and the NASA science is just exciting.”

Cringe Factor

Smithsonian Magazine

Green Your Kitchen

Smithsonian Magazine

You may not know it, but your kitchen is one of the biggest resource hogs in your house. You use electricity and natural gas for your appliances. You use water in your sink and dish washer. Your fridge is stocked with foods grown and transported from all over the world that require chemicals, water and fuel to be produced and transported. And then there's the non-recyclable packaging that goes straight to a landfill.

Here is a list of things you can do in your kitchen to lower your environmental impact, and also to live in a healthier home. We have recommendations for appliances, products and new behaviors.

Any chance you are planning a kitchen remodel? We also have great recommendations for you– wonderful new materials for countertops,cabinets and floors, leads on top-rated green architects and interior designers, and more. Just scroll down if you're focused on a remodel.

Get Green in the Kitchen

1. Use energy-saving appliances. You can greatly reduce your power and water usage and your greenhouse gas production by using Energy Star appliances. Energy Star appliances can save as much as 50% of your energy and water use, and can cut your carbon footprint by 1000+ pounds, compared to standard appliances.

2. Use compact fluorescent lighting. Compact fluorescent lights use 1/4 the energy and last up to 10 times as long as standard bulbs. And they come in versions that are dimmable, recessed-ready, and daylight spectrum–any version of light type you can think of. Each high-use bulb you replace will save up to $10 and 100 pounds of carbon dioxide per year, and they last for many years.

3. Recycle and Re-use. Can you rinse that ziplock and use it again? Can you reuse the containers you got from take-out? And don't get plastic bags every time you go to the store for groceries– take durable reusable sacks with you.

4. Eat Organic, Eat Local. Not only is eating organic healthy for you and your family, but it keeps chemicals from running off into our oceans and rivers from non-organic farms. Eating food sourced locally–like from farmers' markets– means tons of carbon dioxide are not released into the atmosphere in the process of transporting food to you. To learn more about eating organic,see our selection of great books on organic food and cooking. Also, you can find a farmer's market near you to get delicious, organic, locally-grown foods.

5. Get green cleaners. Each time you spray a standard cleaner on your counter you breathe in a fine mist of harmful chemicals. Use non-toxic, organic dish soap, detergent and cleaners to protect yourself and your family.

6. Compost. Don't throw out those coffee grounds and banana peels– save landfill space and make your own rich potting soil using a composter. It's easy! And there's even a model that works right in your kitchen.

7. Only run your dishwasher when you have a full load. It takes the same amount of energy to run a full or a half load– so wait another day and fill up that machine. Also, remember that washing dishes or pots by hand takes more water than doing them in the washer– so go ahead and put them in the machine.

Remodel Your Kitchen the Great Green Way– it's healthy, sustainable and gorgeous!

If you remodel a kitchen the "normal way" you'd likely use some combination of new woods for cabinets, marble or tile for countertops, and perhaps some new tile or wood flooring. These standard materials consume resources and contain many toxic chemicals. Fortunately there is a very different way to design and build your new dream kitchen– a way that is sustainable, healthy and jaw-dropping gorgeous. We'll show you how.

First you should find an architect or an interior designer who is skilled in working with sustainable materials and knows how to build in an eco-friendly manner. Use our nationwide listing of green architects and interior designers to find a great one near you.

Now let's focus on materials you should consider. Let's talk about countertops.

Terrazzo is so beautiful you will not believe it is sustainable. Terrazzo consists of recycled glass and crushed stone held together by cement or epoxy. It is buffed to give it a smooth finish. Terrazzo is low maintenance, long-lasting, and has high recycled content. Recycled materials can make up as much as 95 percent of the materials in terrazzo. Terrazzo from EnviroGlas and Icestone are particularly good for their high recycled content.

"Paper Stone" is another great countertop option. Comprised of paper and other fiber suspended in resin, these materials look surprisingly like stone and come in a variety of exciting colors. The material is heat resistant and very durable. It is also easy to maintain with a nonabrasive cleaner and a cloth. PaperStone and Richlite are two of the more well-known brands. Richlite uses pulp from sustainably managed forests, and PaperStone incorporates up to 100 percent recycled paper pulp.

On to kitchen cabinets.

Everyone automatically thinks "new cabinets" when they start to plan a kitchen remodel. But cabinets are often made from wood harvested unsustainably and saturated with chemicals used in sealing, gluing, and painting. Many of the chemicals used can be cancer-causing and can offgas into your home for years. Fortunately there are some great, safe alternatives.

First, save whatever parts of your existing cabinets that are still servicable. Are the shelves okay but the fronts have to go? Already, you've saved a lot of wood and money. For the new cabinet elements, you can use reclaimed wood, or formaldehyde-free pressed fiberboard. Or you can even get cabinets made from compressed plant material (such as wheatboard).

For the best in wood cabinets, you want to find ones that use either reclaimed wood or FSC-certified wood (FSC stands for Forest Stewardship Council–– and they assure that wood is grown and harvested in a sustainable manner). For reclaimed wood, you can turn to several companies that make cabinets using salvaged wood. CitiLogs uses reclaimed wood and custom milling to produce beautiful products. A company that will sell you reclaimed cabinet-grade wood is Elmwood Reclaimed Lumber.

You can also go the "new but sustainable route" with cabinets. AlterECO manufactures cabinets out of bamboo (a fast-growing grass) and wheat board. Check out AlterECO's cabinet selection here. Another great supplier is Breathe Easy. Breathe Easy cabinets are made using bamboo, FSC Certified plywood and/or wheatboard (all formaldehyde free). Both companies offer low- or no-VOC finishes. Also check out Kirei board, which makes panels out of the pressed stalks of harvested Chinese sorghum. Visit

You also have some great flooring options.

Marmoleum is not your grandma's linoleum. It is made of linseed oil, rosins, and wood flour, affixed to a natural jute backing. It is durable, comfortable to walk on and comes in a mind-blowing array of colors and patterns. To learn more about Marmoleum and find a dealer near you, please click here.

Another great sustainable flooring option is bamboo. Bamboo is a fast-growing grass and is very renewable, durable and attractive. We recommend Teragren bamboo flooring, a company whose mission is to help reduce our dependence on dwindling timber resources by manufacturing flooring, stairs, and panels from bamboo sustainably harvested in the Zhejiang Province of China. Click here to find a Teragren supplier near you.

Also have a look at these amazing tiles made out of recycled rubber– they come in blue, gray, shades of orange, and many other colors. They are both durable and springy, which means they're easy on your knees. Visit to see samples.

Lighting is also critical

Why not use some skylights or solar tubes? Natural light is best for your health and for the environment. If you do need electric lights, there are many great recessed, track and decorative light fixtures that work great with compact fluorescent bulbs. You'll save a lot of power and money going this route.

Last but not least, don't forget about appliances. We've already mentioned them in the section above, but don't forget that appliances will consumer energy for as long as they are in your kitchen, so make the right choices from the start and buy Energy Star appliances.

Thanks for learning how to green your kitchen. Please make sure to check out our new Green Products Ratings & Reviews on main site at where we're adding new and exciting features every day!

Art That Turns Life Inside Out

Smithsonian Magazine

In the old chicken coops on his New Jersey farm, artist George Segal has been wrapping plaster-impregnated bandages around friends and family members since 196l. When the casts dry, he cuts them off the models, using them as molds for life-size sculptures in the "environments" he constructs. In The Diner, 1964-66, for example, a man sits at a counter aimlessly watching the waitress draw coffee from a huge urn. The scene has an eerie sense of reality. "I've found," says Segal, "that the inner state of the mind connects to the outside surface of the sculpture." For the new FDR Memorial in Washington, D.C., Segal created three works in bronze-- Appalachian Farm Couple 1936, Depression Bread Line and Fireside Chat. These works, which Segal says express "how ordinary people felt," have been extraordinarily popular with visitors to the memorial, many of whom can't resist snapping pictures of their family and friends standing in the breadline.

Next month, a major retrospective of George Segal's art will open at the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, where it opened last fall, the show will later travel to the Jewish Museum in New York and the Miami Art Museum in Florida.

This Unremembered US-France 'Quasi War' Shaped Early America’s Foreign Relations

Smithsonian Magazine

America and France weren’t officially at war between 1798 and 1800. But it sure looked like they were.

This period, the result of a diplomatic faux pas, is known as the Quasi War. Its contemporaries knew it as “The Undeclared War with France,” the “Pirate Wars” and the “Half War,” according to Katie Uva, writing on the website of Mount Vernon, George Washington’s historic estate. John Adams was president during the Quasi War, which is not well-remembered today but which helped to shape American foreign policy. It forced the United States to reassess its Revolutionary relationship with France and helped the fledgling U.S.Navy gain experience, helpful in the War of 1812.

In the late 1700s, writes the State Department's Office of the Historian, the new post-Revolutionary French government, known as the Directory, was having money troubles. And France and the United States were in conflict over the States’ decision to sign a peace-establishing treaty with England. “While largely a commercial agreement,” writes Kennedy Hickman for ThoughtCo., the French saw this treaty as violating a previous treaty made with them during the American Revolution–the 1778 Treaty of Alliance.

At the same time, the States were refusing to make debt payments to the French government, arguing that the government they made the deal with during the Revolution was a different government than the current one and so the States weren’t obligated to pay. 

This presented multiple problems for the French. So, writes the State Department's history office, the French government decided to kill two birds with one stone and seize a bunch of American merchant ships. Ready cash and a statement of force all rolled into one.

Adams sent three envoys to France in an attempt to cool things off, but at the time the French government was a post-Revolutionary den of intrigue and tense politics, and they found it hard going. In the end, France made a series of demands that the Americans were not willing to meet, and the two countries reached an impasse. Congress officially rescinded the Treaty of Alliance on this day in 1798.

It was a complicated situation. “The Quasi War was the first time that American neutrality, which had been championed by Washington as president, found itself under attack,” writes Mount Vernon.  Adams was angered by the French demands, and after Congress read the letters he’d received from the American diplomats detailing their treatment, many other lawmakers were angry too.

The United States had an interest in preserving peace with both France and Britain, two superpowers who were at war with one another and had been for a long time. Both of those countries had historic interests in the States. At the same time, the young country was still establishing its foreign policy.

In his 1798 State of the Union address, Adams spent some time speaking about the Quasi War. Although both parties seemed to be interested in reconciliation, he said, “hitherto… nothing is discoverable in the conduct of France which ought to change or relax our measures of defense. On the contrary, to extend and invigorate them is our true policy.”

Among the other measures Adams took during the two years of the Quasi War was to bring George Washington out of retirement and reinstate him as Commander-in-Chief. Skirmishes at sea were fought between French warships and American sailors, according to Spencer Tucker in the Almanac of American Military History, and the States re-mobilized the Navy.  

Despite this tension, cooler heads prevailed and the United States renegotiated the 1778 treaty with France, producing the Convention of 1800. Unlike the Treaty of Alliance, the Convention contained no declarations of alliance, and because it replaced the Treaty, the United States was no longer allied (on paper or otherwise) with France. “It would be nearly a century and a half before the United States entered into another formal alliance,” writes the Historian.

Of course, by 1800, Napoleon had overthrown the Directory and the United States was negotiating with yet another French government.

New Jersey Museum Discovers Stash of Madeira from 1796

Smithsonian Magazine

During a renovation project at the Liberty Hall Museum on the campus of New Jersey's Kean University, historians recently found American wine’s holy grail: almost three cases of Madeira wine, some from 1796, the year John Adams was elected president, reports David J. Del Grande from

“We knew there was a lot of liquor down here, but we had no idea as to the age of it,” museum president John Kean tells Del Grande. “I think the most exciting part of it was to find liquor, or Madeira in this case, that goes back so far. And then trying to trace why it was here and who owned it.”

Madeira is the founding wine of the United States. Brittany Dust at explains that the fortified wine comes from the Portuguese island of Madeira off the coast of Morocco. Not only is the alcohol content of the wine boosted to between 17 and 21 percent, (most wine is between 12 and 15 percent) it is also heated to help preserve it, making it well-suited for the long journey across the Atlantic that would spoil more delicate wines.

During the late 1600s and 1700s it was the New World’s number one wine, drunk by gentlemen and ladies. John Hancock was famous for smuggling ships of Madeira into the colonies and evading British taxation. In fact, the seizure of his ship Liberty, full of black-market Madeira, set off riots in Boston. Dust reports that ace attorney John Adams got the charges against Hancock dropped, but such incidents helped set the stage for the Revolution.

It’s believed Jefferson toasted the Declaration of Independence with Madeira and George Washington celebrated the British leaving New York City with the fortified wine.

Kylee Tsuru at CNN reports that the workers at Liberty Hall discovered the historical beverage, along with 42 demijohns of wine from the 1820s, behind a plywood and plaster wall constructed during Prohibition. While most old wine will eventually turn into vinegar, the fortified Madeira can last indefinitely if stored correctly.

According to Tsuru some of the bottles included Madeira produced for the personal use of millionaire wine importer Robert Lenox. Though the museum is not willing to publicly put a price on the bottles of booze, Mannie Berk of the Rare Wine Co., tells Tsuru that the Lenox bottles are incredibly rare and could be worth as much as $20,000. 

Meg Baker at CBS reports that the museum owns the wine and will decide if anyone will be allowed to sample the Revolutionary libation. Liberty Hall itself was originally built in 1772, growing over time from a 14-room house owned by New Jersey’s first elected governor to a 50-room mansion owned by the Livingston and Kean families who ultimately turned it into a museum on the campus of Kean University.

Del Grande reports that Alexander Hamilton stayed in the house in 1773, where, it can be assumed, he sampled a little Madeira (though the founding father was a bigger fan of coffee).

Underwater Robot Labs Monitor Toxins

Smithsonian Magazine

Almost exactly three years ago, in August 2014, residents of Toledo, Ohio were told to immediately stop drinking their city water. The “do not drink” advisory lasted three days, and sent residents across state lines in search of bottled water. Nearly half a million people were affected.

The culprit? A blue-green algae called cyanobacteria in Lake Erie, the city’s water supply. When conditions are right, cyanobacteria blooms into large, sludgy mats. These blooms can produce a toxin called microcystin, which causes a number of health effects in humans, ranging from rashes and diarrhea to liver damage. Due to climate change and human impacts like agricultural runoff, these toxic blooms are becoming more common.

“The problem is really worldwide,” says aquatic ecologist Tom Johengen, associate director of the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research at the University of Michigan.

Johengen and his colleagues hope Lake Erie, one of the worst-affected lakes in America, may be one of the first to benefit from a new solution. They’re experimenting with a new technology – a lake-bottom “robotic lab” – to test water and give information and early warnings about pollution.

The technology is called an environmental sample processor, or ESP, and is positioned on the lake bottom four miles from the water intake for the Toledo municipal water supply. Looking rather like an industrial garbage compactor, the ESP is sometimes described as a "lab in a can." The fully automated ESP tests the water once or twice a day, and sends the results wirelessly to researchers.

This is much faster than the traditional process, which involves researchers traveling by boat to various locations, collecting, filtering and extracting watering samples, then analyzing them for toxins. That can take up to two days. And while water treatment plants monitor their supply for toxins as well, they test the water at the point of intake. This means if they find something, it’s already essentially inside the water treatment plant. The lab-in-a-can could give up to a day of warning about the approaching of algal toxins. 

Lake Erie’s ESP is the first of its kind to be used in a freshwater system. There are similar labs off the coasts of Maine and Washington, as well as other locations, used mainly to monitor for toxins that might affect shellfish. Research from Stanford has shown ESPs can help give early warning to fishermen and recreational boaters in a saltwater setting, letting them know the water and fish within it might be contaminated. But as cyanobacteria blooms get worse, researchers say ESPs will likely become more common in freshwater.

Climate change is going to exacerbate the problem for two reasons, Johengen says. The first is warming waters. Cyanobacteria like warmth, and thrive in temperatures above 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Other algae prefer cooler temperatures, so when waters get warm enough, cyanobacteria begin to outcompete them and take over large areas. The second reason is runoff. Climate change alters weather patterns and produces more intense storms. Heavy rainfalls generate a lot of agricultural runoff, draining fertilizers from farms into the water supply. Cyanobacteria devour and thrive off these nutrients.

“The combination of warmer waters and high inputs from runoff can really spark these blooms,” Johengen says.

The researchers hope to use the ESP data in conjunction with computer models to understand exactly how the cyanobacteria blooms behave. They plan to track bloom movement both horizontally and vertically within the water, using information about currents and wind. This is important because the location and movement of a bloom can predict how it might affect humans. A surface bloom might only affect water recreation, meaning swimmers and boaters should be cautioned. But a bloom being driven deep by currents can affect water supply, as treatment plants generally intake their water from close to the bottom. Ultimately, the researchers hope to use the data to help prevent blooms as much as possible.

“Bloom eradication is likely never going to happen, but we can absolutely reduce the size and impact of these blooms,” says Tim Davis, an ecologist formerly of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.  

The project, a collaboration between the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research, NOAA's Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, NOAA's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, plans to bring two more ESPs to Lake Erie. Two will be deployed all the time, and a third can be rotated in on an as-needed basis.

The ESPs aren’t a “silver bullet,” Davis says. Researchers will still do weekly monitoring to get a greater variety of information about the water in multiple locations, not just where the ESP is deployed. But he and his colleagues believe similar technologies will become more common as they become smaller and cheaper. Right now an ESP weighs about 1,000 pounds and costs $375,000.

Some eleven million people live on the shores of Lake Erie, the shallowest and therefore warmest and most algae-prone of the Great Lakes. All stand to be affected by increasing toxic blooms. So do residents near many other American lakes, including enormous bodies of water such as Lake Okeechobee in Florida and Utah Lake, near Salt Lake City. Budget cuts and relaxation of environmental regulations under the current administration may scuttle plans for water cleanup, leaving lakes even more prone to toxins.  With ESPs, perhaps residents may at least get a warning before the toxins arrive in their drinking water. 

William Steinway's New York

National Museum of American History

What was the Big Apple like in the second half of the 19th century? The daily diary of piano manufacturer William Steinway opens a window into a New York of concerts, politics, sports, theater, restaurants, and much more. Steinway’s diary resides in the National Museum of American History’s Archives Center as part of the Steinway & Sons Records and Family Papers, 1857–1919. The diary covers the period from April 20, 1861, through November 8, 1896, about three weeks before Steinway’s death.

“I wanna wake up in the city that doesn’t sleep…”

In the last half of the 1800s, long before Frank Sinatra sang those words, before the city had a subway, when there were no Yankees and Knicks, the singer’s words would still have resonated with many residents. Piano manufacturer William Steinway, who lived in upscale Gramercy Park in Lower Manhattan, was among them, and his daily diary opens a window into the New York he knew.

He saw great artists in a great concert hall, which he happened to own. He smelled the sea as he ate oysters at the famous Fulton Fish Market. He attended a ball—and mocked some of the ladies—at the old Madison Square Garden. A German immigrant, he attended plays at a German-themed theater. He went to a grand hotel to meet with the Democratic Party bosses. He left work one day to take in a baseball game at the Polo Grounds. He was a regular at the restaurant that was the “in” place for songwriters. Browse through the diary and you’ll find the New York that Steinway knew.

Steinway Hall

A group of musicians performing on stageOct. 31, 1866: “Inauguration Concert by the Bateman Concert troupe. Everybody is delighted with the acoustic qualities. House filled to overflowing. Great Success. Supper afterwards, jolly time til 3 AM.” Henry Z. Steinway Archive

Steinway was a bit of a genius in building one of New York’s finest concert halls, which opened on East 14th Street in 1866. Concertgoers had to walk through Steinway & Sons piano showrooms to enter the hall, and the manufacturer demanded that artists appearing there could only press the keys of a Steinway piano. Steinway once caused the New York Philharmonic—then the resident orchestra—to cancel a performance when a guest wanted to play on a rival’s keyboard, according to Music and Culture in America, 1861–1918. Steinway Hall hosted 40 to 70 major concerts a year and other programs such as Charles Dickens’s reading before a capacity audience on December 9, 1867. The hall’s last event was in 1890, and Carnegie Hall opened the next year as the city’s top concert venue.

Fulton Fish Market

A man in overalls stands among tables piled with seafoodJune 17, 1870: “Go with wife to Fulton market eat oysters” Image credit: T. H. McAllister / Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.10058

In March 2005, as the Fulton Fish Market got closer to its move from Manhattan to the Bronx, the New York Times wrote that it was “easy to become sentimental” in the market’s 184th year. “Arrive at daybreak, when the sky is turning pink beyond the Brooklyn Bridge, and you have found a forgotten city,” the article said, describing salesmen hoisting fish over their shoulders, workers pushing carts, and night laborers huddling around bonfires in cold weather. But the famous market also had a sordid history. A Time magazine report on organized crime in 2001 mentioned the mob influence on the fish market, and noted: “In 1988 the U.S. succeeded in placing a trustee at the fish market with a four-year mandate to battle racketeering. . . . In reality, little has changed.” William Steinway’s love of oysters took him to the Fulton Fish Market but, by 1927, New York’s oysters were exposed to too much pollution to eat. The Billion Oyster Project, launched in 2014, is working to restore one billion live oysters to New York Harbor by the year 2035.

Thalia Theatre

Illustration of Thalia Theater with horses and carriages in the foregroundOct. 14, 1885: “Very busy, in eve'g to Thalia Theatre” Image credit: Samuel Hollyer (1826–1919) / Museum of the City of New York. 29.100.870

The Thalia, previously the Bowery Theatre, was in the Bowery section of the Lower East Side, and lasted for 103 years under different names. It survived a succession of fires but burned down for good in 1929. Productions at the theater were geared to different ethnic groups, depending on the ownership, and at different times servedJewish, Italian, and Chinese audiences. German plays were performed there from 1879 through 1888, and Jewish actors gave performances in 1889 and 1890, according to King’s Handbook of New York City. Lyricist Yip Harburg (“Over the Rainbow,” “April in Paris,” “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”) once said, “On many a Saturday . . . my father packed me up and told my mother that we were going to shul to hear a magid. But somehow . . . we always arrived at the Thalia Theater.” (A shul is a synagogue, and a magid was an itinerant Jewish preacher, or story narrator.)

Hoffman House Hotel

Men pose behind a desk and barOct. 15, 1885: “Park Com. McLean takes me to Democratic Headquarters at Hoffmann House…” Image credit: Byron Company (New York, N.Y.) / Museum of the City of New York.

Political power brokers from Tammany Hall, the city’s Democratic political machine, considered the hotel on Broadway between 24th and 25th Streets their headquarters. The major attraction, however, was not politics but rather William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s painting Nymphs and Satyr showing four nude women prancing around a faun. In The Epic of New York City, author Edward Robb Ellis recounts how, during the paralyzing blizzard of 1888, actor Maurice Barrymore—“his face flushed with brandy”—began reciting Shakespeare in the hotel’s bar. After a stockbroker tried to silence him, a free-for-all broke out. But Barrymore “kept his perch on the table, and ignored the shattering of glasses and the smashing of furniture, his eyes flaming and his magnificent voice booming, ‘A horse! A horse! My Kingdom for a horse!’” from Richard III. The hotel closed in 1915.

Madison Square Garden

Exterior shot of Madison Square GardenFeb. 20, 1891: In evg with wife, Louis v. B. (son-in-law Louis von Bernuth) and Paula (daughter) in Box 9 Madison Square Garden, at Arion Ball, grand affair, immense number of the demimonde remain til nearly 1 AM (Steinway was referring to a term for women on the fringes of respectable society). Image credit: Photographer unknown / Museum of the City of New York. 91.69.31

Steinway went to the second of four Madison Square Gardens, built by a syndicate that included business titans J. P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and W. W. Astor. Opened in 1890 at the site of the original, Madison Avenue and 26th Street, this Madison Square Garden was a Beaux Arts building designed by renowned architect Stanford White. Ironically, White was shot to death in the upstairs cabaret in 1906 by the husband of his previous lover. There were 5,000 seats with the floor area left open, and 9,000 with floor seats. The Madison Square Garden had a movable skylight that covered half the building, giving operators the option of bringing in fresh air. The building had a cafe, a concert hall, a roof garden, and events that included circuses, concerts, horse and dog shows, and bicycle tournaments. A tower offered great views of the city, with a statue at the top, of the Roman goddess Diana. She was unveiled in 1891, with “a grand illumination of red fire, colored lights, and rockets” revealing that Diana was nude, according to Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. Moralists protested, “but J. P. Morgan liked it and it stayed.” The second Madison Square Garden was demolished in 1925


A baseball game on the polo grounds with horses and carriages in the foregroundSept. 1, 1894: “I then drive to Polo grounds 155th str. & 8th Ave. and see a most interesting baseball game between Cincinnati + New York. At least 15,000 spectators are there.” Image credit: National Baseball Hall of Fame Library, Cooperstown, New York.

Steinway held a board meeting on this Saturday but then ditched any further work to attend a Giants-Reds doubleheader. His diary suggests he only saw one of the games. As noted in an earlier post about Steinway’s visit to the Polo Grounds, the Giants “lost the first game and won the second by the identical scores of 8-6. The attendance in the box score of the second game was 12,000. And the reporters who covered the doubleheader wrote of what then appeared to be a missed opportunity in the pennant race, since the 68–38 Giants were playing the 45–60 Reds.”

Luchow’s Restaurant

Illustration showing restaurant laid out for guests, with white tablecloths and numerous American flagsApril 17, 1896: “Lovely party… in all 24 persons at Luchows, one of the most glorious days of my life, drank two Würzburger (a brand of German beer). Image credit: Advertising Souvenir & Calendar Co. / Museum of the City of New York. X2011.34.3835

August Lüchow opened his famed German restaurant in 1882. Some reports said he received a $1,500 loan from William Steinway, but the diary doesn’t mention it. The restaurant was at East 14th Street, now the site of a New York University dorm. Steinway’s concert hall and showroom were across the street, and the piano manufacturer was a regular. In 1914 composer Victor Herbert and eight associates founded the organization that became the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers in the restaurant, according to a plaque erected at the site in 1965. According to The Big Onion Guide to New York City: Ten Historic Tours, Luchow’s and nearby restaurants “became legendary hot spots where celebrities and performers mingled . . . while critics wrote their reviews at the dinner tables. The popular tune ‘Yes Sir, That’s My Baby’ is said to have been written one drunken night by Gus Kahn on a Luchow’s tablecloth.”

Larry Margasak is a retired Washington journalist and museum volunteer. He previously wrote articles on the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Fair Housing Law, Steinway’s seven-year struggle to plan New York’s subway, and Steinway’s vision of suburban America, which became a reality in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, New York.

Larry Margasak
Posted Date: 
Tuesday, July 3, 2018 - 08:00
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This Fish Outlived Dinosaurs But Oil and Gas Drilling May Threaten Its Survival

Smithsonian Magazine

In December 2000 while exploring the depths of Sodwana Bay, South Africa, scuba diver Pieter Venter came face-to-face with something no diver had ever seen alive before. At 320 feet, he and his colleagues encountered a coelacanth, an extremely rare type of fish that has existed for 400 million years—well before the time of the dinosaurs. The team recorded three fish in the area on that dive and in a later expedition, confirmed that a colony of these so-called “living fossils” lurked in deep water canyons in the bay. That colony of about 30 fish has more or less been left alone for the last two decades, but Tony Carnie at The Guardian reports that oil and gas drilling in the area may threaten the endangered species in the near future.

For decades, paleontologists knew about the human-sized coelacanth from the fossil record. It was believed the big fish went extinct 65 million years ago during the same event that put an end to dinosaurs. But in 1938, a fishing trawler working along the coast of South Africa alerted a local museum that they had found something strange in its nets. It turned out to be a living coelacanth. The creature was a sensation, proof that life is more resilient than we imagine and a reminder of how little we understand the oceans.

Last week, the Italian energy group Eni announced plans to drill in an exploration area known as Block ER236, a 250-mile long area just 25 miles south of Sodwano Bay, which is off the shore of iSimangaliso Wetland Park. In their environmental impact statement, the company says that it is unlikely that coelacanths live in the deep underwater canyons in the exploration area since the morphology is different than the shallower canyons they prefer in Sodwano. They also write that modeling shows no threat from oil spills.

But conservationists disagree. Andrew Venter, head of the South Africa group Wildtrust, tells The Guardian’s Carnie that an oil spill in the area could be a disaster. “The Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 decimated fish populations – so if we had an oil spill off iSimangaliso it is very likely it could wipe out these coelacanths.”

South African ichthyologist and author Mike Bruton agrees that drilling in the area threatens the fish, and that anything that could interfere with their ability to absorb oxygen could harm them. “The risk needs to be carefully evaluated before this commercial venture has progressed too far and it is too late,” he said. “Oil spills do not respect the boundaries of marine protected areas.”

John Platt at Scientific American reports that this isn’t the only threat to coelacanths. The West Indian Ocean population, which includes fish along the coast of Africa and in the Comoros, is estimated to be between 230 and 650 fish. In the last couple decades, deep water fishing trawlers along the coast have pulled up many coelaconths, revealing new populations but also reducing their numbers. There are more specific threats as well. Tanzania is expected to begin construction of the industrial Mwambani Port Project soon in the Tanga Coelacanth Marine Park, which is expected to disrupt the habitat of the rare coelacanths that live there.

Keeping coelacanths around, however, is important. These strange and little understood creatures are a link to nearly half-billion years of evolutionary history and there’s a lot they can teach us about primitive fish. They have weird fleshy fins that they move in a walking motion, a partial vestigial lung inside their chest and a unique hinged jaw that allows them to open very, very wide. They live to be 100 years old and give birth to live young. They also have a special rostral organ in their nose that allows them to sense electrical currents. And they do all that with a tiny, tiny brain that fills less than 2 percent of their head.

Somehow all of that came together to produce the ultimate, albeit odd, survivor. But the big takeaway is this: if a fish in the deep sea can survive 400 million years of comets, volcanic eruptions and everything else history has thrown at it but can’t survive a couple hundred years of industrialized humanity, there’s little hope for the millions of other species on the planet, including us.

The Frog Kamasutra Gains a Chapter, Thanks to Camera-Wielding Biologists

Smithsonian Magazine

Like any single male with a bachelor suite, the Bombay night frog knows that getting lucky is all about location. In India's Western Ghats mountain range, near the Koyna Lake south of Mumbai, this means a branch, leaf or rock overhanging a mountain stream. Once he sets up his seasonal abode, he’ll start calling a serenade to any nearby females moving around in the dark.

Little does he know that his overtures also attract a different species of admirer—one whose sole mission is to catch him in coitus.

“It’s a very unique experience,” says Bert Willaert, a biologist who has taken part in dozens of nightly expeditions—led by SD Biju, a frog expert at the University of Delhi—to capture the Bombay night frog’s mating habits on video. “During the monsoon it's constantly raining, so it’s very humid. These frogs are everywhere around the river,” Willaert says. But despite the volume of frogs and the sounds of the calls, actually getting footage of their escapades was a challenge.

"The difficult thing was to find a male being approached by a female,” Willaert says. But eventually the covert paparazzi tactics of Willaert and his colleagues paid off. Today, Willaert and his co-authors published a study in the open-access biomedical sciences journal PeerJ describing a hitherto unknown mating position in these frogs: the “new dorsal straddle.”

Once the female is smitten enough by a particular call, the footage revealed, she approaches the male then turns her back to him, resting her hind legs on his mouth. At this point the ball is in the male’s court. If he’s feeling the mood, he climbs on top of her. Here’s where it gets weird: Rather than getting frisky, he reaches around the female and grasps onto the stick or leaf that they are sitting on – the proverbial bed post of the Western Ghats.

This position is apparently highly unusual in the amphibian world. As far as researchers have observed — and besides Willaert there are plenty of biologists who spend a significant amount of time and resources watching amphibians mate — these are the only frog species into this kind of thing. All of the other 7,000-odd species in the world resort to only six other mating strategies. “This is quite unique from an evolutionary sense,” says Willaert, who was affiliated with the Amphibian Evolution Lab at the Free Brussels University while conducting the study.

What happens during this stage is a little unclear to Willaert and the other researchers, because their view was obscured by the wet and humid conditions of the monsoon season where they observed the mating process. But it’s likely that while the male hangs over the female, he deposits sperm on her. The female usually waits around five to 30 minutes before arching her back to send her mate off. After he leaves, she lays eggs and sits on them while the sperm trickles down and fertilizes the eggs.

NSFW: Two Bombay night frogs enjoying the dorsal straddle position. (SD Biju)

The male remains nearby. Occasionally he’s so moved by the experience that he loses his balance and falls into the water, but otherwise he hangs out making territorial calls with puffed-out cheeks to ward off other males or potential predators. In fact, he will stay around well after the female leaves (the whole amorous sequence takes from half-an-hour to an hour), guarding the eggs until the tadpoles hatch and fall into the water below. While Willaert didn’t get near the frogs for fear of interrupting the process, he says that related species have even bitten other researchers in an effort to protect their eggs.

Inventive mating positions aren’t the only innovations that set this species apart. Bombay night frogs are among a small number of frog species in which the female also calls, although it’s a relatively rare occurrence. During the 40 nights that Willaert was in the field, he heard females calling only a handful of times, and managed to record the sound only once. It is difficult to tell why the females call, but Willaert thinks it might be a way to let males know they are ready to lay eggs. Or, it may simply be a way to inform males that they are nearby.

Females’ calls may have a higher frequency so they can be more easily detected over the sound of rushing water or other monsoon-season noise, says Sarah Conditt Humfeld, an associate professor of biology at the University of Missouri who has studied the ways that climate change affects the mating behavior of gray tree frogs and who was not involved in the study. The frequency characteristics of "the female call may have evolved to allow easy detection by males in this noisy environment,” she says.

Humfeld adds that the newly described mating position and female calling offer “a nice demonstration of the huge diversity of adaptations that have evolved in this ancient lineage of terrestrial vertebrates." Studies such as these point to the continuing importance of basic natural history research.

Knowing more about these frogs' mating habits could also help conservation biologists interested in breeding them for repopulation. Due to the Bombay night frog’s small and fragmented range of around 7,700 square miles, the International Union of Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources lists it as vulnerable, the category just below “endangered.” Deforestation is adding to the amphibians’ woes, says Willaert.

But while this mating strategy may be new to science, it certainly isn’t anything experimental for the animals. Indian night frogs diversified 70-80 million years ago—making the “new dorsal straddle" about as original as the missionary position. 

For New England's Snow Surfers, Surf's Up Even When Temps Are Down

Smithsonian Magazine

It’s 35 degrees outside, and all Andrew Marsden can think about is catching a killer wave. Other people head indoors once the temperature takes a nosedive, but not Marsden: Instead, the 43-year-old surfer tugs on his wetsuit and gets ready to leap headfirst into the frigid Atlantic Ocean. Winter surfing brings plenty of hazards, like hypothermia, but Marsden just hopes he won’t hit another iceberg.

“Last year I was surfing in Boston Harbor and a chunk of ice the size of a refrigerator door suddenly rolled out of the water and struck the side of my surfboard,” he tells “I didn’t have enough time to react, so it cut right through my fiberglass board and left a two-foot hole.”

With his board fixed and ego intact, Marsden is ready to get back out in the surf and compete in the 48th annual New England Mid-Winter Surfing Championships, which will take place February 20 at Narragansett Town Beach in Rhode Island. Since 1968, surfers as brave—or as crazy—as Marsden have flocked to this tiny coastal town 30 miles south of Providence in the hopes of qualifying for larger competitions across the United States and the world. In 2015, approximately 30 men and women and children of all ages competed, jockeying for qualifying spots in other contests and vying for winter-themed trophies featuring chilly icons like skiers.

The annual event is held by the Eastern Surfing Association, whose coverage stretches from Maine to Florida's Gulf Coast. At 10,000 members strong, it’s the largest amateur surfing association in the world. (Eleven-time world champion and Florida native Kelly Slater got his start surfing with the ESA when he was a kid.)

Peter “Pan” Panagiotis, who has served as the ESA’s regional director since 1972, says the championships are the world’s longest continuously running surfing event. Pan has been surfing since he was 13, and the now 66-year-old surfboard designer and instructor says it's never been canceled due to snowstorms or other types of foul weather. “We do it no matter what,” he tells “We’ve shoveled snow [from the parking lot] to the beach a couple of times over the years.”

It might sound insane to want to surf in water temperatures that average about 32 degrees, but Pan says the perks far outweigh the cold. “During the winter, the beaches are practically empty,” he says. “The only people in the water are surfers.”

There’s another benefit of winter surfing: larger waves thanks to nor’easters, storm surges along the East Coast that typically occur between September and April and are caused by northeasterly winds traveling from the ocean to the coastline. The weather pattern results in waves up to 12 feet in height, compared to ones a quarter of that size in the summertime. Not that it’s without risk—the danger of hypothermia leads surfers to don six-millimeter-thick wetsuits, gloves and booties before jumping into the ocean. A few swipes of Chapstick on eyebrows, eyelids and lips help prevent chapping and keep ice from sticking. Otherwise, says Marsden, your eyes will dry shut.

“There’s also what’s known as the surfer’s whistle,” says Marsden. “You’ll hear surfers whistling tunes out in the water, because once you lose control of your lips, you’re in the beginning stages of hypothermia.” He swears by dumping a gallon of hot water into his wetsuit before getting in the water. Getting out of the surf when it’s cold and windy can also prove challenging, but Marsden has it down to an art: He puts a plastic bin outside his car door and stands in it while flooding his wetsuit with more warm water, stripping down to his underwear and hopping in his heated car. It may look weird, but Marsden says “it’s better than standing naked in the snow.”

Marsden’s daily surfing sessions also help keep him ready for competition. Last year, he took first place in two categories and advanced on to the Northeast Regional Championships. This year, he hopes to do the same—he has his eye on the much warmer ESA Easterns Surfing Championships in Nags Head, North Carolina. Even if he doesn’t qualify, Marsden will still head to the beach every day with a gallon of hot water swaddled in a towel in the backseat of his car.

“I’ve never not surfed because of the temperature,” he says. “If we get a snowstorm, as soon as the wind dies down, I’m out in the water. I see it as five minutes of pain to get in and out with five hours of intense pleasure in between.”

The Fight Against Ginseng Poaching in the Great Smoky Mountains

Smithsonian Magazine

This winter, amid the news of the FBI’s arrest of the remaining occupiers of a national wildlife refuge in Oregon, another story unfolded more quietly in the Appalachians. At the heart of it were a small plant that plays a significant role in eastern mountain forests - American ginseng - and Billy Joe Hurley, a North Carolina man who had just been released from prison for stealing ginseng plants from Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hurley, 47, has been convicted at least five times, stretching back nearly two decades. While ordinarily such a case would be the stuff of the local paper’s police blotter, Hurley’s malfeasance is unusual, garnering national coverage, both because American ginseng roots fetch high prices in Asian markets – hundreds of dollars a pound—and the oddity of a plant heist resulting in a prison sentence.

In the Appalachians, ginseng hunting is a centuries-old tradition. Prized for its medicinal use in Native American medicine, American ginseng drew the interest of a French missionary in Canada in 1715. Helped by the Iroquois community near Montreal, the priest discovered the connection between the American species and Asian ginseng, one of the best-documented plants in Chinese medicine, used for centuries as an “adaptogen” – basically an immune-system stabilizer. When the French realized that the two ginsengs were similar, they shipped the dried American roots to China, where buyers confirmed their interest and the French realized a handsome profit. (Chinese medicine found a slightly different use for the American ginseng – a “cooling” stabilizer distinct from the “warming” effect of Asian ginseng.)

In this early case of globalization, ginseng became one of America’s first exports to the Far East. All through the 1700s, ginseng harvesting for the China trade was a feature of mountain life. Daniel Boone collected the plant along the Ohio River’s banks, and George Washington wrote in his diary of encountering ginseng traders hauling ginseng roots in Virginia’s mountains. The shrub thrived on slopes like the Great Smokies. Naturalist William Bartram wrote in 1791, “The Cherokees speak of the plant as a sentient being, able to make itself invisible to those unworthy to gather it.”

“Ginsenging” as the practice of ginseng hunting is called, has been a way of life for poorer mountain families for generations. From Georgia to the Catskills, but especially in the South, people took ginseng they found in the wild and sold the roots to dealers and middlemen who wholesaled and shipped them to Asia. Few made real money.

Attempts to domesticate and cultivate ginseng have fallen mostly flat, as the market has placed a much higher value on wild plants from the forest. With large swaths of ginseng’s forest habitat having been lost to private development and farming in the past century, the plant has become scarcer. This, in turn, also makes the wild crop even more valuable, creating a vicious cycle of high prices driving people to “hunt” the plant deeper in the wild, leading it to be still more endangered.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a labyrinth two-thirds the size of Rhode Island, with vast, old-growth forests that contain a spectacular array of tree and undergrowth species. Jungle-like walls of rhododendron guard the more remote ginseng patches. In the park’s ecosystem, according to National Park Service botanist Janet Rock, ginseng plays the role of indicating habitat health. Because the plant is finicky - the opposite of a weed, basically - it can signal a healthy mix of tree species, understory and forest composition. It’s the “canary in a coal mine” of forest health. If ginseng disappears here, the impact goes beyond the lost berries and leaves that are a food source for wildlife. Its loss means a forest’s immune system is stretched that much further away from health.

The history of the park and its creation in the 1930s still stings for some who feel their grandparents were swindled out of their land through eminent domain to establish what is now America’s most visited park. Congress had authorized the park in 1926, in part to protect the region’s forests from logging companies, but had no money to create it until President Franklin Roosevelt made it a priority. The Park Service negotiated the purchases through state agencies, buying tracts, one by one, from 18 timber and mining companies and 1,100 small landowners, according to historian Anne Whisant. For some families, the chance was a boon in the Depression’s darkest days to sell homesteads that were too steep for crops and far from schools and clinics. A few descendants today use that grudge to justify taking ginseng from the park. But for most, like Hurley, “ginsenging,” is a tradition handed down one generation to the next.

“He’s pretty much thrown the system out the window,” says Jim Corbin, a biologist who advises parks on ginseng conservation and enforcement. Corbin has a history with Hurley; more than a decade ago Corbin invented a method for detecting ginseng theft using root dye. Since then Corbin has seen Hurley in the courthouse regularly, and Corbin’s dyed roots have contributed evidence to most of Hurley’s poaching convictions.

In recent years, a number of people arrested for ginseng thefts in the Great Smokies couldn’t afford a lawyer and received an attorney appointed by the court system. Corey Atkins, Hurley’s attorney from Asheville, North Carolina, started accepting court-appointed cases five years ago. Since then he has represented a half dozen other ginseng poachers, and defended Hurley several times. “Billy Joe is the most notorious,” Atkins says. “He’s the one everybody knows.”

It’s perfectly legal to gather ginseng on private land, but it’s illegal to take plants from the park to sell them.

The park rangers who arrested Hurley and others for ginseng poaching, and the judges who convicted them, have been working to raise respect for laws governing endangered plants, laws that rarely have teeth. That group includes Rock, who has monitored ginseng and other species in the Great Smokies for over two decades. 

She has seen the Hurley drama at close range. Since 1992, Rock and her lab have received from park rangers more than 15,000 illegally harvested ginseng roots. When the seized roots are forfeited, she and her colleagues replant them back to where they originally grew; they’ve successfully replanted about half of what’s been confiscated. But with poachers like Hurley, protecting the plants is a formidable struggle.

Few other species get stolen. The past year saw a spike in log moss for the flower market, and the disappearance of 60 pounds of chanterelles but, says Rock, “The moneymaker is the ginseng.”

In summer, the low shrub’s bright red berries appear, but the “hunting season” is in the fall, with dates that vary by state regulation. Where harvesting is legal, basically what you see is the occasional man or woman out in the woods, studying the landscape for clues of a small shrub that looks like poison oak. Ginseng devotees keep the whereabouts of their patches very close, because taking your neighbor’s ginseng is almost part of the tradition. As the foliage turns color, ginseng leaves turn a distinctive shade of yellow. When the leaves from the trees above fall, it becomes impossible to find. The uninitiated can wander the woods for days without spotting a ginseng plant.

Environmental advocates say that jailing poachers sends a message and can prevent them from doing damage during the growing season. Hurley’s arrest last June took him out of the park early and limited his damage last year. That makes a difference  - especially since his habits, according to Corbin, have changed over the years: instead of taking isolated ginseng patches, Hurley has taken to sweeping the ginseng in an entire watershed. “He’s doing tremendous damage to the resource,” says Corbin.

Rock says that a repeat offender like Hurley is an anomaly. Some say ginseng hunting is the only thing Hurley does well. “He likes being in the woods,” Corbin says. “I think he realized he could make enough money to support his other habits.” They both say he’s making a calculation.

Corbin speculates the calculation is basic: poverty vs. prison – “three square meals and a warm bed.”

That calculation gets to one truth: the law hits some poor families harder. Atkins’ clients include Latino laborers with no English and young women drawn into the trade. Another truth is that if poachers like Hurley aren’t stopped, they could wipe out an irreplaceable piece of our shared heritage.

Most times Hurley has been caught red-handed, sometimes with hundreds of ginseng roots in his pocket. Typically he pled guilty and paid the fine. A few years back, the usual scenario played out. According to Rock, a ranger heard that Hurley was seen by the road near a particular ridge and was heading down toward Nolan Creek. The ranger tracked him down the slope and found Hurley with 800 roots in his bag. Rock and her helpers replanted 600 of the plants – and they were soon poached again.

Usually Hurley appears at his trial with little to say as Rock gives testimony. She would tell the court about plant’s situation in the park, and how it’s threatened throughout its natural range in North America, and subject to the international treaty governing endangered species, CITES. “I’ve seen him in court and I’ve been expert witness against him,” Rock says of Hurley. “He just sits there, sometimes growls a bit.”

The recent case was different. When he was arrested, the 500 roots weren’t in Hurley’s hands – they were in a backpack found near the trail where he and his brother were seen leaving the woods. Atkins called the evidence circumstantial, but thanks to Corbin’s method of marking ginseng plants inside the park, experts could confirm the plants in the backpack came from within the park.

Ginseng poaching is a misdemeanor, which means no jury trial, but starting about 12 years ago, the crime carried a sentence of up to six months imprisonment. The judge determined the evidence compelling enough to find Hurley guilty, and an appeals judge agreed.

As in previous arrests, Janet Rock’s lab handled the roots seized in Hurley’s case, and replanted them in the forest.

Apart from its struggle to keep Hurley in check, however, the Park Service has faced other hindrances as well. Two – yes, two – national television series have featured ginseng poaching: “Appalachian Outlaws” on the History Channel, and “Smoky Mountain Money” on National Geographic. These shows, Rock says, “are so exaggerated. It really hasn’t helped.” She says the programs have simply encouraged poachers.

The good news for ginseng is there’s been an increase in growing it on private land, where a method known as “simulated wild” aims to use existing forest canopy and low tillage to foster the plants as if they’d grow in the wild. This is both better for the root’s market value and for the forest habitat, especially with legal harvests of actually wild ginseng falling by about one-third in the last six years.

Technology has also brought more hope to the anti-poaching force. There are several apps for how to grow ginseng, and GPS has made it easier for botanists and law enforcement to find and protect ginseng patches. “Now we have a database of cases that can be tracked by rangers. It allows us to graph the information and summarize by watershed and location,” says Rock. She can print updated charts on park letterhead and keep prosecutors informed and share with the judge as a case goes to trial.

It may be that the media surrounding Hurley’s prison terms have deterred local ginsengers near the park, even if the national TV shows have stirred up opportunists with misconceptions. “Everybody thinks it’s a get-rich-quick deal,” says Corbin.

Billy Joe Hurley offers a strong corrective to that notion.

NASA Needs Your Help Snapping and Processing Images of Jupiter

Smithsonian Magazine

NASA’s known for its mad photography skills—its satellites and spacecraft are equipped with some of the best cameras in existence. But when it comes to taking and processing photos of the Juno mission’s upcoming Jupiter flyby, it’s missing one thing: you.

The agency recently announced that it’s recruiting members of the public to help direct its photography efforts in space and process the images taken by JunoCam. The high-res camera was designed not only to take stunning, scientifically useful photos of Jupiter, but to get the public involved, too.

Since Juno spins along its route, JunoCam was designed to take pictures in strips. It snaps photos through red, green and blue filters in one rotation, near-infrared on the next. Then, computers and technicians back on earth stitch the photos together into a composite image. To see how it works, check out this gallery of images of the moon and Earth gathered as the spacecraft began its spinning trajectory towards Jupiter.

But JunoCam can’t take pictures if it doesn’t know what to pinpoint. NASA is now asking amateur astronomers to visit the camera’s website to help decide which areas of Jupiter to photograph by submitting telescopic images of the planet from back on Earth.

During a discussion period, members of the community will comment on the suggestions, then vote on the best areas of Jupiter’s atmosphere to photograph. Finally, the public will be invited to download raw images and process them at home in an attempt to get the best images of a planet that hasn’t been photographed by a NASA spacecraft since 1979.

Is NASA’s plea a gimmick to get members of the public excited about the flyby? No way—Candy Hansen, a member of the project’s science team, says NASA legitimately needs the public’s help. "In between our close Jupiter flybys, Juno goes far from the planet, and Jupiter will shrink in JunoCam's field of view to a size too small to be useful for choosing which features to capture," she explains in a release. "So we really are counting on having help from ground-based observers."

Get out your telescopes and fire up your image processing software—photographers are needed the ride of your life begins now and will continue long after Juno flies by Jupiter on July 4, 2016.

One of the Earliest Images of Skiing Was Destroyed by Youths Trying to “Improve It”

Smithsonian Magazine

Thousands of years ago, some long-forgotten ancient human on what is now the Norwegian island of Tro took an implement to a rock wall and carved an image of a figure on skis. The petroglyph has long been a major attraction and an iconic image for the northern European nation. Unfortunately, thanks to some well-intentioned but severely misguided youths, the iconic carving seems to have been destroyed beyond repair, Richard Orange reports for The Telegraph.

While visiting the famous site, two boys decided that the 5,000-year-old carving could use some touching up. Using a sharp object, they scratched along the image’s lines in an attempt to make it stand out more. In the process, however, the boys destroyed the original markings, writes Orange.

“It’s a tragedy, because it’s one of the most famous Norwegian historical sites,” Bård Anders Langø, the mayor of the nearby Alstahaug Municipality, tells The Local. “It is one of the most internationally known symbols of Norway.”

As the oldest-known image of a person on skis, the stone age symbol is often seen as an iconic part of Norwegian culture. In addition to an important glimpse into the lives of ancient humans, the carving inspired the logo for the 1994 Norway Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Erik Shilling writes for Atlas Obscura.

The ancient skier carving, before it was damaged. (Nordland County)

The news of the damage to the priceless petroglyph broke last week when a person staying in the area informed Tor-Kristian Storvik, the official archaeologist for Nordland County, that the petroglyph had been damaged, Orange reports.

Storvik investigated and found that in addition to the damage done to the famous carving, a nearby etching of a whale had also been harmed. The boys have since come forward and publicly apologized for the incident. Officials are keeping their identities a secret to protect the minors from potential abuse, The Local reports.

"They were trying to make it more visible actually, and I don’t think they understood how serious it was. I think now they understand," Langø tells The Local

In the meantime, archaeologists are planning on visiting the site in September to do a closer study of the icon’s status. However, from the looks of it now, experts think the damage to the art might be irreversible.

“They are going back in September to do a bigger study, but what they can say now is that its probably damaged forever,” Langø tells The Local. “We may not ever be able to see the pictogram of the skier as it was originally made 5,000 years ago.”

The Venice Biennale: Main Course

Smithsonian Magazine

Chin Up for Butterflies

Smithsonian Magazine

Pictures of the Week—Orchids

Smithsonian Magazine

Can anyone identify the orchids in these photos? I visited the orchid show at the Natural History Museum last week (Orchids through Darwin’s Eyes, which runs until April 26) intending to learn more about Darwin and his orchid research, as well as take a few photos for the blog. But I got distracted by all the lovely flowers—they’ve got 300 plants on display, including some that are really rare—and I forgot to keep track of what I was photographing. Oops.

Two of our Around the Mall bloggers were able to keep their wits about them, though (see Orchids Star in Darwin’s Garden and Orchids Show their Stuff on the Smithsonian Channel) and write something substantial about the exhibit.

Can’t make it to the exhibit before it closes? The museum has some lovely professional photos and background information on the exhibit’s Web site.

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