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Young Children Eating at Nursery School

Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
Young Children Eating at Nursery School, 1948. Photographic image of some children sitting at a table eating. One girl is standing and handing a plate to a young boy who is sitting at the table. This nursery school looks after 380 children a month. Parents pay 25 cents per month to leave their children here while they go to work. Photograph by Constance Stuart Larrabee, 1948.

In 1945, Constance Stuart returned from her assignment as the first female South African war correspondent in World War II. Her reputation as a photographer grew. She maintained a photographic studio in Pretoria and Johannesburg. This series of images, which she entitled "Johannesburg Black Man" depict life in downtown Johannesburg and in parts of the city, where Black South Africans lived, such as Sophiatown, Pimville, and Newclare. A second series of images focuses on Father Huddleston's work in Sophiatown. In 1948-1949, in the early days of apartheid, Stuart documented the building of the South Western townships (Soweto) and the way Africans adjusted to this new environment.

There are no prints of this negative in the Constance Stuart Larrabee Collection. EEPA produced an 8x10 study print for reference purposes.

The cataloging of the Constance Stuart Larrabee Collection was supported by a grant from The Smithsonian Women's Committee.

Young Children Drawing at Nursery School

Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
Young Children Drawing at Nursery School, 1948. Photographic image of four children sitting at a desk outside. Each of them are drawing on a piece of paper with a crayon. This nursery school looks after 380 children a month. Parents pay 25 cents per month to leave their children here while they go to work. Photograph by Constance Stuart Larrabee, 1948.

In 1945, Constance Stuart returned from her assignment as the first female South African war correspondent in World War II. Her reputation as a photographer grew. She maintained a photographic studio in Pretoria and Johannesburg. This series of images, which she entitled "Johannesburg Black Man" depict life in downtown Johannesburg and in parts of the city, where Black South Africans lived, such as Sophiatown, Pimville, and Newclare. A second series of images focuses on Father Huddleston's work in Sophiatown. In 1948-1949, in the early days of apartheid, Stuart documented the building of the South Western townships (Soweto) and the way Africans adjusted to this new environment.

There are no prints of this negative in the Constance Stuart Larrabee Collection. EEPA produced an 8x10 study print for reference purposes.

The cataloging of the Constance Stuart Larrabee Collection was supported by a grant from The Smithsonian Women's Committee.

You've Been Slurping Ramen All Wrong

Smithsonian Magazine

The proper position to eat ramen is with your face and hands at a certain angle and proximity to the bowl—close enough, and far enough away, to transfer noodles from bowl to mouth with chopsticks, and to let the aroma-infused steam deepen the sensory connection to the dish. The ramen noodle should be eaten al dente, but this creates a timing issue. Because it’s usually served in a hot broth, the noodle is prone to going soft. The quality of the experience hangs in the balance.

Hence the body positioning. Slurping also has a role. It helps cool the liquid, and aerates it, releasing a fuller expression of flavors.

“With the hot soup, it’s go go go: They say you have eight minutes in the soup before the noodle starts to overcook,” ramen expert Brian MacDuckston tells me. “You want to get your head right in there and stir it all up, activate the gluten.”

For the serious ramen eater, it’s a private communion more than a social experience. The most sought-after spots are the bar counters, and many restaurants are little more than bar counters. One place I visit has dividers that create cubicles reminiscent of old telephone banks, where I pass my order on a printed note through an opening only wide enough to receive back the bowl, as if human engagement would dilute the whole experience. Given the kitchen noise, the place is not as quiet as a library or a confessional booth, but the spirit of it suggests something similar. The etiquette around ramen includes one particular prohibition worth noting. Chopsticks need to be set down by the bowl or across its rim, never stuck into the noodles so that they point out at an upward angle, which is the way Japanese leave food offerings at graves and would be regarded as a gesture or symbol of death.

MacDuckston, who moved to Japan a decade ago from San Francisco, blogs about ramen shops, mostly those in Tokyo, and leads tours to his favorite spots. He figures there are at least 5,000 shops in Tokyo alone, though only about 200 to 300 make what he calls “impact ramen,” a certain sublime culinary level. In 2015, one of them, a nine-seat restaurant named Tsuta, became the first to earn a Michelin star. It was a distinguished moment in the history of ramen, a traditional street food elevated to an artisanal cuisine with gastronomique aspirations.

Ramen now reaches well beyond Japan. You can find shops in places as far away, geographically and culturally, as Iceland and Mexico, with chefs putting their own spin on the dish (e.g., Raheli’s Kosher Ramen Israeli style). In the case of the celebrated ramen chef Ivan Orkin, the first American to open a shop in Tokyo, passion for ramen has spun all the way back to Japan.

If ramen could yet turn out to be a fad in the rest of the world, its importance in Japan is hard to overstate. Tens of thousands of ramen shops dot the Japanese archipelago, and it’s a culinary and cultural touchstone that goes way beyond food—into modern history, popular culture, even, apparently, romance. The Ramen Bank, a website that scores ramen shops the way Wine Spectator scores wine, also offers a “ramen marriage hunting” service, a matchmaking link for those whose shared passion could be the foundation of a committed relationship.

Chefs travel to the country’s most remote recesses to source ingredients from farms and specialized makers of soy sauce and other products. At a top slurp shop, every ingredient is handcrafted, fermented, seasoned, smoked, chipped, or shaven for its role in the dish.

Diners take a selfie at a yatai, or street stall, in the city of Fukuola on the Japanese island of Kyushu. (Hajime Kimura, The New York Times / Redux)

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Ramen soup is layered. Its base is an unseasoned stock—usually pork or chicken—and vegetables. The seasoning comes from a concentrated liquid called tare, which comes in three flavors: salt, miso, or soy. Each chef uses particular ingredients in specific proportions to make a signature tare, an often secret blend that distinguishes one shop from another. The noodles are made from wheat flour, salt, water, and baking soda, and their width or thickness should be calibrated to the consistency and flavor of the broth. A noodle has to stand up to the soup but not overwhelm it, so a thin noodle is usually for a subtle soup and a thicker one for a hearty soup. The dish is enhanced with aromatic oils and finished with toppings such as bonito or sardine flakes and garlic chips. Everything about ramen is about balance and harmony.

There are important regional differences. In Tokyo the stock is usually chicken and the amount of kansui, a baking soda compound in water that makes the ramen noodle different from, say, pasta, is comparatively high. Go west, and the Hakata style, tonkotsu, is pork-based. In the north and east, kansui is more concentrated, creating different styles of noodle.

A recent trend is yaki ramen, which is ramen without the broth. At the Raumen (Ramen) Museum in Yokohama—a modest-size mall of little ramen shops representing the various regional styles—one place features soupless ramen with tomato sauce and parmesan cheese, which to the uninformed might look like pasta and sauce. The difference is the noodle, which, because of the kansui, has a chewier texture and a distinctive smell. Japanese describe the pungent ramen odor in much the way cheese aficionados will make approving comparisons to barnyards and socks.

If the regional differences might be compared with variations of food in France or Italy, a notable difference is that Japan’s national food is not passed down by ancient tradition. For most of its history Japan’s basic grain was, of course, rice, not wheat; ramen only appeared in Japan in the 1880s, migrating from China. It was quick, cheap, and filling, and Japan began to adopt and fashion ramen as its own. But ramen really took root in Japan after World War II, and the reasons for that had less to do with culinary tastes than with political realities.

“There was an important geopolitical purpose behind the wheat that became Chuka soba [ramen noodles] and other foods, which was to stave off the rise of Communism in Japan,” writes George Solt in his engaging study, The Untold History of Ramen: How Political Crisis in Japan Spawned a Global Food Craze.

At the end of the war Japan was devastated; between bombings and drought, it was unable to feed itself. American authorities approached food policy somewhat punitively. Even though the American narrative was about magnanimity and big-heartedness, in fact the Japanese government was being charged the cost of the occupation. The Japanese were suffering, and Eisenhower wrote a memo to Truman warning that there could be violent unrest. After the communists took over China, in 1949, the Truman Administration expanded a policy that had become known as “containment.” It saw food aid as critical to rebuilding Japan and keeping the influence of the Soviets at bay. The U.S. dramatically increased the supply of wheat flour to Japan.

“The dependence on American wheat imports during the occupation set Japan on a long-term course of food importation that would set the stage for the flourishing of ramen...in later decades,” writes Solt. “The battle for Japanese hearts and minds would therefore occur in large part through food, making American wheat a highly effective public relations tool.”

Ramen comes in many varieties, depending on the ingredients and the type of noodle that is used. It should be eaten relatively quickly so the noodles don't overcook and become too soft in the bowl. (Jody Horton, Offset)

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Slurping and noodling my way across Japan, I eventually arrive in Fukuoka on the northern edge of Kyushu Island. Here I learn firsthand another way in which the Second World War served to bolster the production and sale of ramen.

Fukuoka has a reputation as one of the world’s least known great food cities, and it is especially proud of its tonkotsu ramen, a rich, pungent pork-based style. And among its most popular attractions are yatai, or street stalls, especially the ones set up along the Naka River. The yatai, it turns out, are relatively new: They sprang up in the postwar period, at the end of Japan’s imperial era. Former colonists returning from China, Taiwan, and Korea established them because they were a quick and inexpensive way to get into business.


Today many yatai are two-man operations: a cook and a helper, who serves as a marketer and promoter to passersby still deciding which place to sample. Stools are set up at a counter around the cook, who passes out bowls and small plates as they’re ready.

Before I head out to sample Fukuoka’s ramen, I ask my hotel’s concierge to recommend a good yatai, along with directions. He dismisses them all as “touristy.” Not helpful, but no matter. It turns out none are so touristy as to have signboards in English or even Romaji (Japanese words in Roman lettering). I pick the one that has the longest wait for a seat.

Two Japanese women visiting from Tokyo befriend me and think I ought to try some things I neglected to order myself—the stalls also serve grilled meats—and pass me their small plates to pluck from. We manage to converse with some words in English and the miracle of a translation app. Other nearby seats are taken by a fellow American, a Swede, and a Frenchman. Perhaps because the beer and shochu flow—the Japanese custom is typically not to drink alcohol with ramen—this place is more social than some other slurp shops. Our gathering even begins to feel like an impromptu meet-up.

Some people may call the shop touristy. But I think it may say something about ramen, and how customs and tradition keep changing. Anyway, the food is very tasty and the atmosphere is fun. And at least I’m not completely lost: When it comes time to slurp, I’ve had a good week of training, and the one thing I do understand is how to get in just the right position.

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.”

You Wouldn't Want to Cuddle This Giant Prehistoric Otter With a Crushing Bite

Smithsonian Magazine

Picture an otter, and you’ll probably see a peaceful beast gamboling in tranquil seas. Otters are so charismatic, in fact, it’s easy to forget that they also use rocks to brutally bust open sea urchins and other mollusks. Now, paleontologists have uncovered a fossil from the coal-rich strata of an ancient wetland that brings the otter’s true nature home: cute as they are, otters have been literally crushing it for millions of years.

This new, burly otter has a bit of a mysterious backstory. In 1983 paleontologists described what they thought was a new fossil otter—Siamogale thailandica—from a single molar found in Thailand. But a later study suggested that the animal the tooth belonged to was more like a European badger, and even the discovery of additional teeth did little to resolve where this mammal fit in the carnivoran family tree. Now, thanks to expeditions in China, the mammal's true identity has been revealed.

From the fossiliferous wealth held in the 6.2 million-year-old sediment of the Shuitangba coal mine in Yunnan, China, a team of Chinese and American scientists have now described Siamogale melilutra. There are parts of at least three skeletons from this new species of Miocene mammal. But it’s a partly-crushed skull that solves the longstanding riddle once and for all: Siamogale is definitely an otter. Albeit a badger-ish one.

Although time was not kind to the Siamogale skull, the fossil shows significant traits that both solidify its status as an otter and explain why there was some prior confusion over its identity. Part of the rear of the skull called the mastoid bears some telltale otter traits, Natural History Museum of Los Angeles paleontologist Xiaoming Wang and colleagues write, but the first molar—the first piece of Siamogale thailandica found back in the 80s—does look a bit look the same tooth in badgers. The end result is a bulky otter with a few hints of badger-like anatomy about it.

“It has the skull of an otter but shares many dental similarities with badgers,” Wang says, “which is why we called it melilutra”—which is Latin for “badger otter.” The results are published today in the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology.

The ancient "badger otter" is a far cry from today's cuddly-looking critters. Pictured above: a modern river otter in Germany's Bavarian forest. (F1online digitale Bildagentur GmbH / Alamy )

At the time Siamogale was alive, Shuitangba was a wooded wetland, says Cleveland Museum of Natural History paleoecologist Denise Su. “This is in contrast to what was happening globally, with increased aridification and cooling,” says Su, a coauthor on the paper who been tasked with working out the ecology of the site. This might explain why Shuitangba seems to have mammals different from those found elsewhere, including apes and tapirs that had vanished from other places.

“Shuitangba may have been an example of refugia habitats that were present during the latest Miocene that allowed some of the mammalian species adapted for a warmer and stable climate to survive into the Pliocene,” Su says. In other words, this strange creature may have be a straggler from an earlier time, preserved thanks to a protected environment that persisted while the rest of the world changed.

Putting together this broader picture was no easy task, nor was getting a good look at the badger otter itself. Even though Siamogale melilutra is one of the best-preserved mammals from the Shuitangba site, Wang says, “it has been badly crushed into a pancake-like shape.” Study coauthor Stuart White spent months piecing scans of each element and shard into place to create a reconstructed vision of the otter.

What’s certain is that the new beast was a bulky one: With an estimated weight of 110 pounds, it was about the size of a modern-day wolf. “The fossil otter is larger than all living otters,” Wang says. Yet although many meat-eating mammals evolve larger sizes to tackle bigger prey, Wang says, he expects that the size of Siamogale owes to a different cause. The mammal’s teeth hint that Siamogale was a mollusk eater, Wang points out, similar to modern sea otters. But while sea otters use rocks to crack open their hard-shelled food, it’s unlikely Siamogale did the same.

“Perhaps our fossil otter has not learned to use rocks,” Wang muses, “and instead applied brute strength to crush hard shells?” Future studies may answer this paleobiological puzzle, but at least there is now more to study than the tooth, the whole tooth, and nothing but the tooth.

You Will Feel No Pain

Smithsonian Magazine

Psychiatrists, medical doctors and psychologists have used hypnosis for more than two centuries to treat pain and illness. Since World War II, it has slipped quietly into the clinical mainstream. It is employed today to combat phobias, control bad habits and enhance performance. But what is the underlying mechanism by which it works? How do suggestions conveyed under hypnosis change what one feels? Scientists have asked these questions for years, and recently an ever-growing corps of dogged researchers has attacked these questions from every conceivable direction — but we still don't know the answers.

Work on how hypnosis affects the brain has been done recently at research hospitals here and in Canada. In each case, scanners detected increased blood flow in relevant parts of the brains of hypnotized subjects who were put through color and pain tests. Skeptics insist this could be due to the power of suggestion.

With weight loss the evidence is conclusive. Psychologist Irving Kirsch of the University of Connecticut has compared all the studies that have been done and has found that hypnosis does help people reduce. But motivation is crucial. "It's like the joke about how many therapists it takes to change a lightbulb," Kirsch says. "The answer is one, but the lightbulb has to want to change."

You May Not Have Rhythm, But Your Eyeballs Sure Do

Smithsonian Magazine

Not everyone can tap out a beat, but new research suggests that everyone has a drummer hiding deep inside the recesses of their nervous systems. According to a new study, scientists studying how humans process information have found evidence that indicates our brains can pick up on rhythmic patterns, even when we’re not paying attention to the music.

In a new study published in the journal Brain and Cognition, researchers from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands sat 20 psychology students in front of a computer and had them complete a task involving pressing the spacebar on a keyboard as fast as they could. But that was just a distraction—the real test had to do with the music the researchers were piping into the room and the response from the students’ eyes.

"The perception of music is a complex interaction between what we hear and our interpretation," the researchers write in the study. "This is reflected in beat perception, in which a listener infers a regular pulse from a musical rhythm."

Throughout the test, the researchers played one of several audio clips that sounded like drum rhythms you might hear in a pop or rock tune. Several of the songs, however, left out particular beats throughout the clip: some were missing a bass note here or there, others were missing hi-hat clicks. Meanwhile, a camera trained on the subject’s eyes recorded the movement of their pupils in order to see how they responded to the missing beats.

Because people can’t consciously control how big their pupils get, studying this movement can help shed light on how we perceive the world. For instance, in this study, the researchers found that even when the subjects were ignoring the music, their pupils would get larger when a beat was dropped. In addition, they found that the subjects’ eyes reacted differently when different beats were missing—a missing bass note played on a beat would provoke a bigger reaction than a missing syncopated hi-hat tap, for example. According to the study, that suggests that people not only have a basic sense of rhythm, but they can distinguish between more important notes on an unconscious level.

“People have very little control over their pupillary response,” Bruno Gingras, a researcher at the University of Innsbruck’s Institute of Psychology, who was not involved with this study, tells Smithsonian.com. “People have used other methods to show that people react if they hear a surprising chord, or a surprising note. But so far it has not really been shown with pupillary dilation.”

In recent years, scientists have begun looking to pupillary movement to glean new insights into the brain. While they have long known that pupil size and movement is an unconscious reaction to stimuli like light and sound, it was only once cameras and software became sensitive enough that researchers were able to start thinking about the eyes as a window into the recesses of our brains.

“Physiologic signals in general are quite noisy,” Gingras’ research partner Manuela Marin, who was also not involved with this study, tells Smithsonian.com. “Even if you have other autonomic nervous system measures, like skin conductance, you need very good technology to show the effects.”

Pupillary movement, on the other hand, is pretty obvious. After all, with a simple camera, researchers can gauge a person’s unconscious reaction to something just by tracking how big their pupils get, even as they perform another task.

While Gingras and Marin say this study presents some intriguing evidence for humans having an innate sense of rhythm, it would be interesting to see how professional musicians would respond to a similar test. They suspect that musical training and knowledge could spark a much stronger reaction to changes in rhythms and musical patterns than a psychology student who may not have spent as much time studying music in the same way. Applying this technique to different groups of people could help paint a more nuanced picture of how deeply ingrained music is in our unconscious minds.

You May Have Been Eating Mushrooms That Were Unknown to Science

Smithsonian Magazine

As much as it might seem that Earth's unexplored wilderness shrinks every day, right now is actually a “golden age of discovery,” says Bruce Stutz in a 2009 story from Yale Environment 360. By heading deeper into the wilds and by using advanced tools like DNA barcoding and genetic analyses, biologists are uncovering new species at a record clip. In 2006, says Stutz, scientists found 16,696 new species.

But scientists don't need to be trekking through dense forest, machete in hand, to find new forms of life. Some of these new species are just sitting around, right under our noses. Or in our mouths. You may have eaten one of them and not even known it.

In a new study by biologists Bryn Dentinger and Laura Suz from England's Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, the scientists found three previously unknown species of mushroom for sale in a southwest London shopThe pair report their findings in the non-peer reviewed journal Peer J.

The scientists really didn't have to dig very hard to find these new species. They walked into a Gaia Wholefoods store in Twickenham, picked up a single packet of dried mushrooms and genetically analyzed the 15 mushroom pieces they found inside.

Bam. Three new species.

There may be as many as 10 million species of fungi out there in the world, and scientists have barely even scratched the surface in documenting and describing them, say Dentinger and Suz in their report. Researchers add as many as 1,200 new species of fungi to the register of known species every year, but that still leaves oodles of unknowns. And some of those unknowns, it seems, sometimes wind up on dinner plates.

The three new species were all varieties of porcini mushroom, popular mushrooms for cooking. Porcini mushrooms can only be foraged, as farmers have never figured out how to grow them as a crop. For the past few decades, mushrooms exported from China's Yunnan Province have made up an increasing share of the porcini entering the food supply. But the Chinese mushrooms are less well documented than the more familiar European and North American species. The packet the researchers tested was imported from China.

That unknown species are being sold as food can be potentially problematic, say Dentinger and Suz. Not knowing what we're eating makes it hard to regulate harvest and trade and makes it hard to pin down the source if any health problems crop up. If nothing else, this find might open up how biologists and species hunters think about the "urban jungle." 

H/T io9

You Can Now Riffle Through the Same Library Charles Darwin Used Aboard the Beagle

Smithsonian Magazine

Charles Darwin spent five years sailing around the world aboard the Beagle. In between exploring South America and checking out the Galapagos, Darwin had a lot of time to kill. Luckily, the Beagle's library - kept in Darwin's own quarters - assured he was never without something to do. It contained some 400 volumes, many of which spoke to the natural history and anthropology of the lands he was exploring. 

After the voyage concluded in 1836, however, the books scattered. And for more than a century, no one was quite sure which volumes Darwin enjoyed on that historic voyage. Now, researchers from the National University of Singapore have for the first time assembled what they think is the more or less complete collection. They drew upon previous studies that identified around 130 books housed on the Beagle, and combed through Darwin's letters and notes for clues about what Darwin was reading. 

The result is a freely accessible digitized Beagle library that includes around 195,000 pages of text and 5,000 illustrations. The researchers tried to use the same editions that Darwin did, and some of the writings are in French, German, Latin, Spanish and Greek. The books have all been transcribed so they can be easily read and are searchable. 

The project is now complete, and you can begin your own literary voyage at Darwin Online's Beagle Library

You Can Now Download 150,000 Free Illustrations of the Natural World

Smithsonian Magazine

Botanical illustrations offer mesmerizingly detailed and vividly colored glimpses of the natural world. Now, reports Hakim Bishara for Hyperallergic, more than 150,000 such artworks are freely available for download via the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), an open-access digital archive that preserves images and documents related to botany, wildlife and biodiversity.

Captured in watercolor paintings, lithograph prints and black-ink linework, the collected illustrations demonstrate the diversity of Earth’s wildlife as observed over hundreds of years. The BHL’s earliest texts date to the mid-1400s; its digital collection includes illustrations as recently created as the early 1900s.

The practice of creating detailed illustrations of flora and fauna, whether to document an expedition or a medical practice, gained popularity well before photography was up to the task. Even today, an illustration can offer more clarity than a photograph.

Small red Siberian apples from New York (Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library)

“An illustration can show various parts of a plant at the same time, something a photo really can’t,” Robin Jess, director of the New York Botanical Garden’s Botanical Art and Illustration program, told the Associated Press’ Katherine Roth in 2019. “It can show extra details of the fruit, for example, and what it looks like bisected.”

Founded in 2006 by a consortium of natural history libraries, among them the Smithsonian Libraries, the BHL launched its online portal the following year. Then 300 titles strong, the database has since grown to more than 200,000 volumes, 150,000 illustrations and information on some 150 million species. Per Hyperallergic, selections range from animal sketches to historical diagrams and botanical studies.

Collected illustrations and digitized pages of preserved plants, called herbaria, provide insights for researchers studying the ways plants have adjusted to a changing climate. Other works, like the zoological sketches of Joseph Wolf, show how societal norms have shaped the ways people imagine animals.

Joseph Wolf's African Elephants reflects a Victorian family structure rather than actual wild elephant behavior. (Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library)

Wolf illustrated two volumes of rare animals depicted in their natural environment rather than the London zoo where they actually lived. In one lithograph, a trio of African elephants stands by a river. As BHL’s Elisa Herrmann points out in a blog entry, the illustration “reflects the ideal of a Victorian family,” with two parents and a child, but fails to capture actual wild elephant behavior. Unlike what’s shown in the illustration, bull elephants are rogue, and adult female elephants have tusks.

The Flora Graeca, compiled by botanist John Sibthorp between 1806 and 1840, exemplifies the importance of illustrators’ field notes. Described by 20th-century botanist W.T. Stearn as “the most costly and beautiful book devoted to any flora,” the text features drawings printed with hand-colored engraved plates based on Austrian artist Ferdinand Lukas Bauer’s trove of 1,000-plus field sketches.

The BHL is currently cataloging thousands of field books in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution Archives, the Smithsonian Libraries and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Since the project began in 2010, the group has cataloged more than 9,500 field books and digitized some 4,000.

Estimates of the number of animals lost in Australia's recent wildfires do not include insects. (Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library)

In its mission statement, the BHL cites swiftly changing ecosystems and extinctions as reasons for bringing together a body of knowledge about biodiversity that may help researchers track how the world is changing today. In the wake of Australia’s wildfires, for instance, scientists could make use of this 1907 catalog of Australia’s insects.

Today, writes Adrian Higgins for the Washington Post, botanical illustrators are “rare and becoming as endangered as some of the plants they draw.” The fruits of their labor, however, have and continue to be “essential” for botanists detailing new species or assembling lists of regions’ native plants.

Speaking with the Associated Press, Jess of the New York Botanical Garden explained, “Contemporary botanical artists share a concern for the environment, particularly in light of climate change, as well as for drawing attention to plants.”

You Can Now 3D Print With Liquefied Wood

Smithsonian Magazine

You can 3D print just about anything these days, from car parts to cakes. Most additive manufacturing uses plastic or metal (or sugar), because it is easy to melt these materials down and extrude them.

But, there has been blowback about the current state of 3D printing, because of its significant environmental impact. It uses considerable amounts of energy in manufacturing—50 percent more than injection molding—and creates a lot of non-biodegradable materials, which some designers and environmentalists consider unnecessary.

Printing with purely natural materials could alleviate that second environmental burden, but that has long seemed impossible. “Wood is composed of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. None of these components melt, and they burn when heated,” says Paul Gatenholm, a chemistry and biopolymer technology professor at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.

Gatenholm and his team at the Wallenberg Wood Science Center at Chalmers has, nonetheless, come up with a way to 3D print wood, making it possible to build biodegradable structures. Cellulose, the structure that gives wood its strength, is solid, sustainable and abundant, so they saw a lot of potential for printing. Plastic and metal, which are used in most additive manufacturing, melt when they’re heated, which makes for a runny, liquid material that’s conducive to printing. The researchers had to change the consistency of the wood fibers to turn cellulose into an injectable liquid.

They mixed the cellulose nanofibrils—essentially the same pulp that’s used to make paper—into a slurry that was 98 percent water. The challenge was dialing in this ratio to produce a mixture that was flexible, but that would also form solid structures, and that wasn’t temperature sensitive.

Gatenholm, who has a background in tissue engineering, had been working on similar technology in human biology, with the hope of making physical implants that would grow along with a person and adapt to their specific body chemistry. “We realized potential of this new material as bioink in 3D bioprinting,” he says. “One day we dried the sample and saw that we could produce fine structures like fabrics. We started to study the drying process of this gel and discovered that we could control it and preserve 3D architecture.”

Once they got the cellulose's consistency right for printing, the researchers started to experiment. They printed large-scale wooden structures, including chairs, and thin flexible materials, such as clothing. Gatenholm believes the technology could completely change additive manufacturing, and he is not alone in his thinking.

Other researchers, like Neri Oxman at MIT's Mediated Matter lab, have been trying to 3D print natural materials to save waste. "In the natural world, everything grows. If we can create technology that grows materials instead of subtracting them, then we can control lots of elements in that process," Oxman has said.

In addition to building structures out of the cellulose, Gatenholm and his team found a way to put carbon nanotubes into the gel, to make it conductive. This gives them the potential to build things that are both biodegradable and have built-in electrical currents, like bandages that could signal doctors about the health of wounds or clothes that could turn body heat into electricity.

"3D printing technology, which could only use metals and plastics, became suddenly green and organic,” Gatenholm says.

You Can Call Him 'Cute' or You Can Call Him 'Hungry'

Smithsonian Magazine

"There is something enormously satisfactory about a weasel," writes wildlife biologist Carolyn King in her book, The Natural History of Weasels and Stoats. But you would not have a clue what she means from our popular culture. In most traditional animal stories, weasels are the archfiends laying waste to the "poor faithful creatures" of Toad Hall in The Wind in The Willows, for instance. Uses of "weasel" as a reference to humans are commonplace and almost never flattering, not when Washington Irving wrote of a "meagre, weazel-faced Frenchman" nor when a TV critic for the Washington Post summed up David Letterman's estimation of TV executives as "shifty, gutless vacillating network weasels.'"

 Carolyn King calls such slurs character assassination. Having studied weasels for nearly 30 years, first at Oxford University and then in New Zealand, she has become one of the world's experts on the creatures and is determined to see them get their due. Far from being "gutless," she points out, weasels are "bold and confident out of all proportion to their size," taking on prey and predators larger than themselves. (In one case, a hawk swooped down to pluck up a weasel and soon was seen falling from the sky, dead, with the weasel's teeth sunk into its breast.)

While weasels suffer an exaggerated reputation for raiding henhouses and bird nests, they are much more likely to attack rodents (including the rats that are the real henhouse villains). In fact, says King, that is the exact purpose for which they evolved some four million years ago. Their small size and long, sinuous bodies make them perfectly designed for following rodents right into their burrows. Carolyn King has devoted her career and author Richard Conniff has devoted this article to uncovering all the nifty tricks that allow the much-maligned weasel to survive in a cold and hostile world despite having short fur, little fat and, as Conniff writes, "the metabolism of a hip-hop dancer on a caffeine bender."

You Are What You Eat, And What You Eat Is Millions of Microbes

Smithsonian Magazine

Poop is nothing short of a scientific miracle. It helps researchers understand the diets of dinosaurs, trace the spread of ancient disease and recognize parasitic infection. Fresh human feces also provide a direct window into our guts and the billions of microscopic critters therein, which help digest our food, protect us against disease and even influence our moods.

That was the idea that fueled Rob Knight, one of the founding fathers of gut microbiome research, to start the American Gut Project in 2012. Knight used the crowdfunding platform FundRazr to coax more than 9,000 volunteers into first donating money, and then sending samples of their poop through the mail. A team of researchers probed these samples for bacterial DNA to create the first census of the 40 trillion or so bacteria that call our guts their home.

What he learned was revealing. But no matter how informative, illuminating and downright cool poop was, there was still something missing: Where do all those trillions of bacteria come from? It turns out that, for the most part, we’re voluntarily putting them in our mouths around three times a day. “You get an ongoing input of microbes from your environment—microbes you eat on food itself,” says Knight, who directs of the Center for Microbiome Innovation at the University of California at San Diego.

One of the mysteries sparked by the American Gut Project was why two people who claimed to follow the same diet could have such different communities of gut microbes. For the study, volunteers had self-reported their diets, with the vast majority following omnivorous diets, and less than 3 percent each identifying as "vegetarian" or "vegan." When researchers crunched the numbers, however, they found no discernible correlations between gut communities and those with seemingly similar diets. 

“Diet categories were completely useless and didn’t correlate with the microbiome communities at all,” says Knight.

In other words, the bacteria in poop were telling a different dietary story than the people making that poop. “You can be a vegan who mostly eats kale, or you can be a vegan who mostly eats fries,” Knight explains. “Those have totally different consequences for your microbiome.” Anyone can claim to be a die-hard adherent to the Paleo Diet, it seems, but the data suggested that the microbiome remembers all those midnight ice cream transgressions.

Knight realized that the results of the American Gut Project were missing something crucial: A deeper dive into the food we eat. Filling that gap would mean analyzing all the food going in, and seeing how it correlated with the patterns in what comes out. But while collecting poop was, in some sense, straightforward—each person "submits a sample" in the same way—tallying up all the many foods people eat would be a lot more ambitious.

Every time you ingest, you change the interior landscape of you. Because the bulk of bacteria in the microbiome live in the gut, when we feed ourselves, we feed them too. The chemistry of what we eat, be it fries or kale, alters the chemical landscape of the gut, making it more cozy for some and less hospitable for others. 

It gets livelier. Because microbes are everywhere—on the table, in the air, on the surface of the muffin you left out on the counter—you’re also adding new microbes to the mix. Some stroll through your body like polite tourists. Others stick around and interact with the locals. Every bite has the potential to alter the microbiome, and subsequently human health. But researchers have yet to figure out how.

That’s because, until now, we didn’t have the platform to embark on the massive endeavor of collecting and analyzing food samples from around the world. Thanks to the American Gut Project, Knight and his team aren't starting from scratch. Initially, the researchers plan to collect 1,000 samples from every brick of the familiar food pyramid, and then they’ll open it for the public to submit whatever foods they’re curious about. 

Along with Knight, the food microbiome project is led by microbiologists Rachel Dutton, who uses cheese as a model system to understand microbial communities and fermentation, and Pieter Dorrestein, who studies the chemistry of biological interactions between microbes, both at the Center for Microbiome Innovation. They're aiming to launch this crowd-sourced initiative before the end of the year.

“We know about calorie count, and about different food groups, but the whole world of the molecules and the microbes in our food is a black box,” says Julia Gauglitz, a post-doctoral researcher at the center who will direct the project. As the old adage goes, “we are what we eat,” she says. And yet, when you get down to the microscopic level, “we know very little about what we’re consuming.”

The other “black box” researchers want to investigate is food's chemical composition. It turns out there’s a whole lot more than what’s listed on the Nutrition Facts label: With conventional techniques, only fats, sugars and vitamins can be measured, “but that’s only a small fraction of the total weight of food,” Dorrestein says. We could be overlooking novel antioxidants, cancer-fighting compounds or even stowaway antibiotics.

By using mass spectrometers—basically fancy scales that are precise enough to weigh individual molecules—Dorrestein can deduce the chemical composition of food at a level never before achieved. As the food samples roll in, Gauglitz will be waiting in the lab. She’ll take, say, a granola bar, extract all of the genetic material from the microbes colonizing it, and then use DNA sequencing to figure out the critters' identities.

She’ll then run a bite of that granola bar through the mass spectrometer to tease apart every single molecule that it’s made of. In the end, she’ll be left with a very, very detailed granola bar recipe. Those molecules make up the landscape where food microbes live, and likely influence who’s there and what they do.

I asked Gauglitz how she will distinguish between the chemical composition of the microbes living on the granola bar and the chemicals made by the microbes. “I would shift your thinking a little bit,” Gauglitz says, her voice growing philosophical. “What is intrinsically in the granola bar are also microbial metabolites.” Put another way, the granola bar is the microbes.

Everything we eat is the cumulative product of the chemistry and microbes in the soil where it was grown, the factory where it was processed, and whatever you touched right before you ate it. Why is that important? Ultimately, the team hopes, demystifying the microbial patterns in our food will help us better engineer our diets to improve our health and ward off disease.

Knight draws a historical parallel to the discovery of essential nutrients. In the last century, researchers figured out that industrially processed foods had become nutrient-depleted. By artificially adding vitamins and minerals back in, deficiency diseases like rickets and beriberi were largely eliminated from the Western world. Similarly, understanding the health effects of the microbiome could allow us to engineer those missing microbes back into our meals.

“It’s fairly likely that our modern lifestyles are stripping out a whole lot of live microbes that we need to maintain health,” says Knight. “Getting an understanding of that could be as important as the understanding that vitamin C is necessary and making sure that everyone got enough of it.”

The team has already picked out 1,000 foods for their initial survey, including staples like bread and cheese. “We want to include raw food ingredients, any kind of fruit or vegetable, meats, snacks, baby food,” Gauglitz says. But they also want to compare microbial communities in foods produced by organic and conventional farming, as well as look deeper into products that rely on microbial fermentation, like coffee, chocolate and sausage.

The project could also solve some of the medical mysteries raised by the previous microbiome research. For example, some of the tests in the American Gut Project sifted through each fecal sample for trace amounts of antibiotics. Strangely, of the people who had detectable antibiotics in their samples, nearly half of them had reported taking no antibiotics in the past year.

Dorrestein believes these are second-hand antibiotics we absorb from the food we eat, additives or things left over from livestock feed. This is worrisome, because their presence could lead to the spread antibiotic-resistant bacteria. By teasing apart the chemistry of each sample, the team will be able to figure out if he’s right, and start figuring out what these leftover drugs could be doing to our guts.

Appreciation for the power of the microbiome is growing, thanks in part to initiatives like the American Gut Project and books like Ed Yong's I Contain Multitudes. There’s even a burgeoning field dedicated to the microbiome of the built environment and how our microscopic roommates living in the air and on inanimate objects interact with us. Humans aren’t unique in this regard; studies of microbiomes in critters from coral reefs to honeybees show that the health of any organism is intimately tied to the microbes that call it home.

As a result, microbes are starting to turn around their reputation. No longer are they merely menaces in a germ-averse culture. Within the past decade, “nutritionists recognized the importance for gut health and human health to have healthy microbes in our large and small intestines,” says Helena Pachón, a senior nutrition scientist at Emory University who is not involved in the food microbiome project.

Pachón points out that, today, those historic deficiency diseases that Knight refers to have been surpassed by 21st century afflictions like obesity, diabetes and heart disease. “There’s a term called ‘globesity’,” says Pachón. “The potential that microbes could have something to do with this is completely unexplored, and it could be that they’re highly related.”

Knight agrees. “It would be amazing to come up with a way through food to eliminate them in just the same way that those chronic diseases a century ago have been,” he says. To do so, "we need the help of thousands of people to pull it all together.” 

You Are What You Buy

Smithsonian Magazine

At a Wal-Mart, James Twitchell, professor of 19th-century poetry at the University of Florida, in Gainesville, is energized as any dedicated scholar would be upon entering an archive packed with new material. Twitchell loves this stuff so much that he has switched from teaching and writing solely about Romantic poetry to buzzier issues, such as adolescents wearing dungarees slung low to reveal their Joe Boxers, and whether the Jolly Green Giant is an avatar of Zeus.

His study of mass culture, especially advertising, began 15 years ago, when he was teaching a class on the Romantic poets. "I suddenly realized my students had no interest in what I had to say." He asked them to complete a line from Wordsworth: "My heart leaps up when I behold a ______ in the sky." Nobody could supply the missing "rainbow," but his students could flawlessly recite the contents of a Big Mac: two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles and onions on a sesame-seed bun.

"It was an epiphany," he says, and he was determined to find out why the stuff his students knew was so powerful that it pushed his stuff out of the way.

Since then, he has been observing himself, his family and his colleagues, students and neighbors. He has invited himself into advertising agencies and has explored advertising's history. And he has learned that the average adult now encounters some 3,000 advertisements every day, from bus flanks to messages over the telephone as the caller waits on hold. He has probed the impact of all that mass marketing in such works as ADCULTUSA and his latest book, Twenty Ads That Shook the World.

"My own take," he says, "is that humans love things and we've always been materialistic, but until the Industrial Revolution only the wealthy had things now the rest of us are having a go at arranging our lives around things."

Yo Yo Ma

National Portrait Gallery
A remarkably versatile and exuberant performer, Yo-Yo Ma is the preeminent cellist of our time. Born in Paris to Chinese parents, he was a prodigy, and at age eight, he appeared on American television in a concert conducted by Leonard Bernstein. He studied music at Julliard and has a liberal arts degree from Harvard. Besides having played with most of the world's major orchestras, Ma also plays with chamber groups and has done considerable crossover work, including soundtracks for such films as Seven Years in Tibet and Memoirs of a Geisha. He currently plays with his own Silk Road Ensemble, which brings together musicians from diverse countries historically linked by the Silk Road. This casual and engaging portrait was created when he was honored by the Lotos Club in New York City, which featured the image on the evening's menu.

Yet Another Study Finds No Link Between Measles Vaccine and Autism

Smithsonian Magazine

A study of more than 600,000 children in Denmark has found that the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella does not increase a child’s risk of developing autism, adding to a substantial body of evidence that refutes some parents’ fears about a possible connection.

The new study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, is one of the largest of its kind, according to NPR’s Rob Stein. Using data from population registries, researchers looked at 657,461 children born in Denmark between 1999 and 2010; the children were followed from the age of one until August 2013. Ninety-five percent of the young study subjects were vaccinated, reports Lisa Rapaport of Reuters. Of the children involved in the study, 6,517 were diagnosed with autism.

But the researchers did not find any increased risk of autism in children who received the MMR vaccine, compared to those who did not. Crucially, the study authors also looked at subgroups of children considered susceptible to the disorder due to several risk factors, like having siblings with autism and being born prematurely. “A concern about observational studies is that they do not often take into account the possibility of MMR vaccination triggering autism in susceptible subgroups of children,” the study authors acknowledge. But even among these subgroups, the researchers did not observe any connection between MMR vaccination and autism risk.

Fears about possible connections between vaccines and autism spectrum disorder can be traced back to a now-retracted 1998 Lancet study, involving only 12 children. The study was led by the British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield, who was later banned from practicing medicine after Britain’s General Medical Council concluded he had shown “callous disregard” for children in his work. After the paper’s publication, it was revealed that Wakefield had been paid by a law firm hoping to sue the manufacturers of the MMR vaccine, and that he had “altered or misrepresented” his results, according to CNN’s Edith Bracho-Sanchez.

Subsequent studies have repeatedly found no link between the MMR vaccine and increased autism risk. However, so many parents have nevertheless declined to vaccinate their children that the World Health Organization deemed “vaccine hesitancy” one of its top ten global health threats for 2019. Just last month, a measles outbreak sparked a state of emergency in Washington state, and experts are concerned about the possibility of other outbreaks in “hotspots” of vaccine opposition across the country. If a high percentage of a given population is immunized, the MMR vaccine can protect even those who are not immune. But as little as a five percent reduction in “vaccination coverage” could triple the number of measles cases in the United States, one study found.

Measles is a highly contagious viral illness that can have serious complications, such as pneumonia and encephalitis, or swelling of the brain. In some cases, these complications prove fatal. And as the new study and others like it indicate, there is no reason for parents to put their children at risk of contracting this illness due to autism fears.

“We believe that our results offer reassurance and provide reliable data on which clinicians and health authorities can base decisions and public health policies,” the researchers write.

Or as Anders Hviid, lead study author and epidemiologist at the Staten Serum Institute in Copenhagen, succinctly summarized in an email to NPR’s Stein: “MMR does not cause autism.”

Yes, Tropical Forests Tragically Burned This Summer, but Here’s What You Can Do

Smithsonian Magazine

In August, the world’s attention turned towards the fires in the Amazon, and even as those continued to burn, fires erupted across Borneo and Sumatra. Alarm is warranted—the estimated emissions from burning to date of more than one billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) will have a greater impact on Earth’s climate than if every U.S. adult drove an additional 30 miles per day for a year. And that loss is not reversible within the time frame remaining to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions, or live with severe consequences of warming over 1.5 degrees Celcius.

These numbers don’t count the risk of upsetting regional and even global rainfall generated by these great forests pumping water into the atmosphere. They don’t count the fact that we’re losing some of Earth’s most biodiverse forests. They don’t include the infringement these fires have had on the one million indigenous peoples living in the Amazon, including uncontacted communities, that are seeing their lands burned and their homes threatened. And they don’t account for the sickening of thousands of people—especially children—subjected to smoke that turned skies black in Brazil and red in Indonesia.

Although this year's fires are dying down, such events happen every year, with some years worse than others. It is critical that we understand the significance of these fires and how we can best respond. Solving this problem will require collective awareness and action.

This problem isn’t caused so much by the people of Brazil—a country that I’m honored to have married into; my husband is from the small town of Itaquara, Bahia—or the people of other tropical countries. People from these countries have far more to lose than we do in North America.

In fact, the fires are driven by consumption patterns here and around the world. The tragedy is that only a few people—or corporations—gain at the expense of just about everyone else on the planet—and of course at the expense of incredibly biodiverse and climatically important forests.

Much of the burning is linked to deforestation, and sometimes the fire spreads beyond land being torched for agriculture into the surrounding forest. In the Amazon, deforestation is being driven by a sudden increase in demand for soy, and encouraged in Brazil by anti-environmental rhetoric. In southeast Asia, it’s driven primarily by expansion of the palm oil, pulp and paper industries.

The Amazon, the world’s largest tropical forest, is often referred to as the lungs of the world, and while the forest does produce a lot of oxygen, a much more critical function is its ability for “breathing in” and storing the carbon dioxide (CO2) that would otherwise be in the atmosphere and contribute to warming.

If we examine a typical patch of Amazonian rainforest the size of a parking spot, about 9- by 18-feet, the living trees that have been growing there over the decades or centuries have removed 615 pounds of carbon from the atmosphere. The dead organic materials and the soils contain an additional 470 pounds that would be vulnerable to loss upon deforestation.

When the trees are felled and subsequently burned and the land converted to agricultural use, this carbon is immediately or eventually released as CO2, along with the greenhouse gases nitrous oxide (N2O) and methane (CH4) in the smoke. Moreover, the forest stops sequestering carbon dioxide (CO2).

But it goes beyond carbon. As forests “breath” in CO2, they release water vapor to the air. Like human sweating—this water vapor cools the land surface as liquid water is converted to vapor.

Altogether, the climate cost of clearing this parking spot-sized forest patch would ultimately be about equivalent to driving a car with average U.S. gas mileage approximately 5,500 miles—about the distance of a round trip between New York City and San Diego, California. And the 2019 Amazon fires burned more than 1.2 billion parking spot spaces, much of which was previously intact rainforest.

Much of the burning is linked to deforestation, and sometimes the fire spreads beyond land being torched for agriculture into the surrounding forest. (Getty Images, NurPhoto, Contributor)

Further still, the water vapor that’s been released by the “breathing” of the forest goes on to form clouds and, eventually, precipitation elsewhere. In our parking space-sized patch of forest, trees draw water from the soil and release it as vapor to the atmosphere at a rate of about 10 gallons per day. This moisture is absorbed by air passing over the Amazon, and this air will eventually produce at least twice as much rain as air that has not passed over extensive forest.

Much of this precipitation falls within the Amazonian region, and some of it falls elsewhere in South America—especially regions to the southeast, including Brazil’s most populous and agriculturally productive region. But the precipitation travels further still. Through global “teleconnections” in the climate system, the moisture produced by the Amazon influences global circulation patterns, affecting growing season precipitation in the Midwestern U.S. and snowfall in California and the Pacific Northwest.

And this is where it gets really serious. If too much of the Amazon is lost, this critical moisture pump will weaken and may become insufficient in providing the needed moisture to the remaining forest, resulting in a feedback cycle of drying, forest loss and further drying. This drying could affect agricultural regions elsewhere in Brazil, impacting millions.

How much forest loss would push us over this dangerous tipping point? Scientists who are best equipped to make a judgement call on this critical estimate are saying that the forest that we have right now is right at the size that it needs to be. We can’t afford to lose much more of it.

And that’s just the climate story.

The Smithsonian-led Forest Global Earth Observator (ForestGEO) has three large forest research plots in the Amazon—Amacayacu in Colombia (above), Yasuni in Ecuador and Manaus in Brazil. (Pipe Jiménez)

These forests are incredibly diverse. The Smithsonian-led Forest Global Earth Observator (ForestGEO), for which I lead the Ecosystems and Climate research program, has three large forest research plots in the Amazon—Amacayacu in Colombia, Yasuni in Ecuador and Manaus in Brazil. In any one of these plots, each roughly 62 acres in size, there are as many as 1,000 different species of tree, more than in all of North America combined. Because there’s little species overlap across sites, the three plots together have about three times as many species. The entire Amazon Basin has an estimated 16,000 tree species. That’s just trees—other biological taxa have outstanding diversity as well. This biodiversity isn’t even fully characterized yet; only about 70 percent of the tree species in our ForestGEO plots have been fully identified, and biological expeditions are constantly discovering new species. We don’t even know what we’re losing, but we do know that this incredible biodiversity is important for maintaining ecological function—particularly under a changing and more extreme climate—and that it provides multiple ecosystem services.

The tropical forests of Indonesia are similarly valuable for climate, biodiversity and people. These are peat forests, which have the highest climate regulating values on a per-area basis of any ecosystem on Earth—more than three times that of Amazonian tropical forest. Once again, the flora of the region is highly diverse and includes the world’s tallest tropical trees, and the fauna includes orangutans, Sumatran tigers, Sumatran rhinos and elephants.

The scale of this problem is enormous. There are no quick and easy solutions. In the immediate term, the loss of so much Amazonian and southeast Asian forest is an unmitigated disaster. But how can we take this tragedy—and the attention it brings to the issue of tropical deforestation—and use it as a lesson?

An important first step is understanding how tropical forests worldwide, climate, and the food and other products that we consume are all interconnected on the global scale. Collectively we can have a real impact.

Land is an increasingly limited resource, and how we use it has a big impact on our climate, as has recently been documented in the IPCC report on climate change and land. “Human use directly affects more than 70% (likely 69-76%) of the global, ice-free land surface,” the report points out. “Land also plays an important role in the climate system.”

There’s a fundamental competition between using land for agriculture, which altogether contributes 21 to 37 percent of total net anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, and protecting or restoring forests, which of course are valuable for protecting Earth’s climate. Agricultural land emits greenhouse gases—primarily the potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide as a biproduct of nitrogen fertilizer and methane from enteric fermentation by cattle and sheep—and of course it also takes up land that could be covered by forest.

What we eat can have a big impact on our carbon footprint. According to a recent study summarized in a New York Times interactive report, meeting the typical body’s need for about 50 grams of protein per day through beef for one year would have about the same climate impact as driving all of the way around the Earth, whereas getting the same protein from tofu, nuts or beans would have a small fraction (less than four percent) of this climate cost.

Conserving mature forests, with their enormous climate regulation values, is among the most effective things we can do to slow climate change, and forest restoration is also effective, as young, rapidly growing forests suck a lot of CO2 out of the air. Allowing tropical forest regrowth in a parking space-sized patch of land has a climate impact over 50 years as avoiding driving about 2,000 miles.

There are ways to help, including supporting groups that buy and protect forested land in the tropics. For the price of a fast food hamburger or a latte, you can protect enough land in the Peruvian Amazon to offset over 9 million driving miles.

While it is impossible to live in a modern society without consuming products that have contributed to deforestation or other environmental damage, being aware of what’s behind various products can allow us to make choices that reflect our values. Responsible consumer choices add up to a real impact, and consumer pressure can and does alter business practices for the better.

Take the time to do research and find information on how various products and companies score in terms of their impact on environment and human rights. Product labeling campaigns, such as the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal helps to indicate rainforest-safe products. The Forest Stewardship Council identifies responsible sources of forest products. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certifies more sustainable palm oil practices. And the Bird Friendly coffee certification of the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center helps to identify more sustainable alternatives.

The 2019 fires in the Amazon and southeast Asia greatly surpassed those in the two previous years and this is deeply disturbing. The forces driving this are powerful. However, we all face everyday choices that matter, and choosing to forego a hamburger and instead donate $5 to conserve Amazonian forest will make a difference.

ForestGEO postdoctoral fellows Nobby Kunert, Daniel Zuleta and Camille Piponiot made contributions to this article.

Yes! I Wanna! Learn Music From Botswana!

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Set of three lessons. Students listen critically to traditional music from Botswana and then sing and compose in the style.

Yawning Man with 27 Faces figure

National Museum of American History
This little elf known as The Yawning Man is wearing an orange and brown suede suit with a hood. Originally Pal made his figures out of wood, which required thousands of individually carved figures just to make a few minutes of film footage. To cut back on time and expenses, Paul made the form of the elf out of wire and his body from latex to make it pliable. The feet, hands and ears were made of foam rubber and covered with latex, allowing the parts to be used interchangeably. . The set includes 27 wax heads with different states of yawning. The elf was used in the motion pictures Tom Thumb in 1958 and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm in 1962. Pal won Oscars for both productions.

George Pal was one of the pioneers of stop-frame animation, a painstaking process achieved by moving figures and shooting each change on a single frame of motion picture film in a series of progressive steps. For each frame shot, the head, arms and legs of the figures were changed according to the motions needed to create the illusion of movement. Pal was awarded an honorary Oscar in 1944 for "the development of novel methods and techniques in the production of short subjects known as "Puppetoons."

George Paul (1908-1980) nee George Marczincsak, was born in Austria Hungary and educated at the Budapest Academy of Arts where he studied architecture. Limited job opportunities encouraged Pal to further his interest in human anatomy and attended a local medical school where he studied kinetic motion—the energy of motion and the interrelationships between moving parts. This sparked Pal’s interest in animation and his studies served him well when he went to work at a silent film company and became the head of the cartoon department. .

By 1933, fascism was on the rise and the Nazi regime was spreading its influence into Europe. Pal fled to Prague, and where he was known as an animator, special effect designer and producer and then Paris where he opened his own animation studio. He disliked the flat 2-dimensional looks of the early cartoons and he began to create 3-d figures using carved wood with wire limbs that made for easy movement. Designed with multiple replacement parts, including heads, arms and legs, Pal created replacement parts that could be used interchangeably to create the impression of continuous, flowing movement. These puppets with no strings were named “Puppetoons”, a combination of the two words puppet and cartoon. Pal finally settled in Eindhoven, the Netherlands were he produced short films and commercials for products that were sold in England, France and the Netherlands.

On average, the animated shorts lasted about eight minutes, and for each film, Pal created as many as 9,000 puppets with as many as 2-300 heads and appendages. One of his first advertisements included dancing cigarettes.

In 1939, while Pal was traveling in the US lecturing at Columbia University, the Germans invaded Poland. Pal, his wife and son were granted asylum in the US and in 1940 he was hired by Paramount Pictures.

Pal had a long and successful career in Hollywood, and his work with the Puppetoons addressed a wide variety of subject matters, including politics, fairy tales, and music. Pal was also well known and respected for his work in feature films and was the first producer-director to combine animated puppets with human actors. He was awarded several patents for his creations and he was awarded eight academy awards for his work in film.

Yasir Arafat Museum Opens in Ramallah

Smithsonian Magazine

The new Yasir Arafat Museum in Ramallah in the West Bank, opened last month on the 12th anniversary of the Palestinian Liberation Organization leader’s death. Daniel Estrin at NPR reports that the three-story museum is located next to Arafat’s former compound and includes the nearby rooms where he spent the final years of his life as well as his mausoleum.

Isabel Kershner at The New York Times reports that the $7 million project was funded by the Palestinian Authority and chronicles much of Arafat’s life, but it will not likely settle any of the controversy about his legacy. Arafat was the founding leader of the Al-Fatah political party, the chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and president of the Palestinian Authority, so most Palestinians regard him as as a revolutionary hero who fought for an independent homeland; most Israelis and their allies viewed him with, at best severe skepticism or, at worst, as "a master terrorist," as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it in an interview with CNN in 2002.

The museum charts Arafat's life, beginning with an explanation of Palestinian nationalism in the early 20th century, then, the Nakba, "'the catastrophe', as Palestinians call the period leading up to and following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948," as Peter Beaumont at The Guardian, reports. 

"​The museum treads a fine line, honoring the Palestinian narrative while dealing dispassionately with some of the more awkward periods in the Palestine Liberation Organization’s chronology," writes Estrin. For example, the museum calls attention to the more violent acts carried out by Palestinian factions during Arafat's time in power, but does not discuss the extent of Arafat's involvement, Kershner writes. 

But as American diplomat Dennis Ross explains in his bookThe Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace:

Arafat's greatest travesty as a leader is that he did nothing to delegitimize those who used violence against the Israelis. Never throughout the Oslo process did he declare that those carrying out terror and violence against Israelis were wrong, were illegitimate, were enemies of the Palestinian cause. He might arrest them from time to time; he might tell us he had "zero tolerance for terror." But the message for Palestinians was that he was under pressure from us or the Israelis and he had to do this—not that Palestinian aspirations were being threatened by violence and that Palestinian interests demanded it not be tolerated.

Displays in the museum include Arafat’s thick black glasses, signature olive green shirt, his pistol and the checkered keffiyeh headdress that he wore in almost every image taken of him. Visitors can also peer into the bedroom where he spent the last 34 months of his life, which has been left untouched. In 2000, after a Palestinian uprising known as the Second Intifada, Israeli tanks kept Arafat under house arrest in his compound, even demolishing some of the structure. In 2004, in ill health, Arafat was taken to France where he died of unknown causes, reports Estrin. 

“His legacy is in many ways too big for a single museum to hold. He was a symbol of unity for the Palestinian people, a national leader, a freedom fighter and a father,” museum director Mohammad Halayqa tells Beaumont. “His life overlapped with the Palestinian experience, so we have tried to tell both stories together without intruding Arafat in events where he does not belong.”

Some claims made in the museum do not hold water, such as an exhibit that states Arafat was poisoned with radiation by Israeli agents while in France, though several studies have concluded that there is no evidence of that.

The opening of the museum underscores the way the Palestinian movement has fractured in a decade without Arafat; Gaza is led by Hamas, and the West Bank by Fatah, a schism that rose in the wake of Arafat's death.  To condense an incredibly complex situation into a few words, Fatah seeks a peaceful agreement with Israel to create a two-state solution, while Hamas refuses to Israel recognize Israel and seeks to destroy it, splintering Palestinian culture.

“We all miss him,” museum visitor Ahmad Aboushi tells Estrin. “The person who can unify us. We miss the leadership in his character and charisma, I think.”

In 2007, Hamas seized control of Arafat’s former headquarters in Gaza, looting the building and most of the artifacts from his life, including the Nobel Prize medal he won in 1994 for negotiating a peace deal with Israel. (The object was returned to the museum in October.) So far, none of the other artifacts have surfaced.

X-Rays Show That Van Gogh’s Sunflowers Will One Day Wilt

Smithsonian Magazine

Vincent Van Gogh painted his iconic Sunflowers in vibrant yellows and golds, bursting with a sense of life and movement that has made them universally beloved. But the artist could hardly have predicted that more than a century later, those bright lemon-yellow hues would start to wilt into a brown muddle, reports Daniel Boffrey at The Guardian.

A new X-ray study confirms what researchers and art lovers have long suspected: Van Gogh’s paints are fading over time. In 2011, Sarah Zielinski at Smithsonian.com reported that chemists were looking into how the 100-year-old paint was holding up. They found that exposure to UV lightboth from sunlight and the halogen lamps used to illuminate paintings in some museum galleriesled to oxidation of some paint pigments, causing them to change color.

A 2016 study looked deeper into the matter to find that one of the bright yellow paints Van Gogh liked, a mix between yellow lead chromate and white lead sulfate, was particularly unstable. Under UV light, the unstable chromate changed states and the sulfates began to clump together, dulling the color. Unfortunately, the process is not currently preventable.

In the latest study, reports Boffrey, scientists created a detailed X-ray “chemical map” of one of the sunflower paintings held in Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, mapping the areas where Van Gogh used the UV-sensitive pigments and areas where he used less sensitive paint. “We were able to see where Van Gogh used the more light-sensitive chrome yellow, the areas that the restorers should look out for over time for discoloration,” said Frederik Vanmeert, a materials science expert at the University of Antwerp who is part of the team tasked by the museum with analyzing the paintings. “We were also able to see that he used emerald green and a red lead paint in very small areas of the painting which will become more white, more light, over time.”

Damien Sharkov at Newsweek reports that, in total, Van Gogh used the photo-sensitive pigments in about half the painting. Currently, the darkening of the paint and the wilting of the sunflowers is not visible to the naked eye. But researchers are not sure how long they will stay vibrant. The museum has already taken some steps to protect the artwork, like installing smart LEDs last year which allow them to control the light spectrum hitting the paintings and more finely control the brightness and hours of light paintings receive.

Despite the effort, there is currently no known way to keep the chrome paints from changing color. And it’s not just the sunflowers at risk—Van Gogh used the light-sensitive paint in many of his other works. The hope is the new research may suggest ways to stop the wilting or new techniques for lighting or displaying the paintings that will help them last longer.

“Discoloration of pigments is a topic of research that is of great interest to us since Van Gogh, as did his contemporaries, used several pigments that discolor over time,” Marije Vellekoop, head of collections and research at the Van Gogh Museum, tells Sharkov. “At the moment, we are processing all the research results of this iconic painting, after which we determine how we will pay further attention to discoloration in our museum. We know that the discolored pigment chrome yellow has been used a lot by Van Gogh, we assume that this has also been discolored in other paintings.”

Even if researchers can’t stop the sunflowers from drooping in the future, there are efforts to make sure they’re still available in their original vibrant colors for later generations. Last year, museums holding five of the original seven paintings (one was destroyed in Japan during World War II and the other is held by a private collector who doesn’t like to share) put them all together in a virtual gallery, which won’t fade, even if it is a bit glitchy from time to time.

Wyoming Paleontology Dispatch #1: Why 56 Million Years Ago?

Smithsonian Magazine

It was 39 summers ago that I first came to the Bighorn Basin in northern Wyoming to do paleontological fieldwork. I was just out of high school then, had no experience collecting fossils and felt unbelievably lucky to be included. (I had taken a paleontology class at the local university and had wrangled a spot on the trip through my professor.) I still feel lucky to be able to come out here every summer, partly because of the beautiful landscape, partly because it gives me a month outdoors and away from e-mail and phone messages, but mostly because this is a place where I can pursue the endless question I have about what the earth was like millions of years ago.

This summer, as in many past, I am focused on a period of time 56 million years ago, just as the Paleocene Epoch passed into the Eocene. The Paleocene, which began about 66 million years ago, was the first part of the “Age of Mammals” that followed the extinction of the dinosaurs. The climate was mild. The Eocene was generally even warmer than the Paleocene; palm trees grew in central Montana and alligator relatives swam in the Arctic Ocean. I’m giving this transition from the Paleocene to the Eocene special attention because of a strange climatic event, a period of rapid global warming called the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, often abbreviated PETM. The PETM lasted “only” about 200,000 years, but it was a busy time. In the first 10,000 years of the event, global temperature increased by about 4 to 8 degrees Celsius (or 7 to 14 degrees Fahrenheit) and the deep ocean became more acidic. This was all caused by a very large release of carbon into the ocean and atmosphere, though we aren’t sure yet where the carbon came from. Many scientists think there were several sources, probably including methane ice deposits in the ocean floor as well as carbon dioxide from volcanic activity. The parallels to human-caused global warming are strong, and that’s why so many of my colleagues and I are interested in the PETM.

Why come to Wyoming to study the PETM? Between 50 million and 60 million years ago the Bighorn and Bear Tooth mountains were rising rapidly, pushed up by forces deep within the earth, and as they rose they eroded. The sediment shed from their sides was carried into the low-lying Bighorn Basin by streams, eventually piling up miles thick and causing the bottom of the basin to sink under the added weight. The muddy and sandy sediments encased the remains of countless animals and plants. Much to the delight of paleontologists, the Bighorn Basin has many areas where those sediments deposited 50 million to 60 million years ago are being carved by wind and water into badlands and where the fossils within them are now exposed at the surface. This is probably the finest place in the world to collect fossils from the late Paleocene and early Eocene, and that’s what has drawn me back every year for most of my life.

For the first part of the field season, I will be doing what I usually do—looking for places to collect plant fossils, mostly fossil leaves, from the band of rock about 120 feet thick that represents the PETM. When we find them my crew and I will spend long hours in the hot sun digging rocks out of the hillside, splitting them open, examining them for fossils, and carefully wrapping the “keepers” for transport back to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

Beginning on July 13, for 7 to 10 days we will be doing something new and different—drilling a core through rocks deposited during the PETM near the town of Basin, Wyoming. We will be working with a large international crew of scientists and drillers from the Ruen Company. The goal of this project is to recover the most complete possible record of the PETM in rocks that have never been exposed since they were deposited 56 million years ago. We hope they will contain microscopic fossils of pollen and also chemical fossils—compounds made by the plants that lived during the PETM. The fossil pollen and the fossil molecules derived from these ancient plants have the potential to help us develop a detailed record of how the climate changed during this ancient global warming episode and how plant life responded to the climate. It seems like important information to know given how rapidly we humans are changing the climate.

Dispatch # 2 »

Scott Wing is a research scientist and curator in the Smithsonian Institution’s Department of Paleobiology

Image by Scott Wing. The Bighorn and Bear Tooth mountains are filled with fossils that after millions of years are now exposed at the surface. It is probably the finest place in the world to collect fossils from the late Paleocene and early Eocene. (original image)

Image by Maura McCarthy. Every summer, Scott Wing travels to Bighorn Basin in northern Wyoming to pursue the endless question of what the earth was like millions of years ago. (original image)

Writing Is Memory

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

“When I write, I am flying,” says Armenian calligrapher Ruben Malayan.

Pen poised on paper, eyes intent, he breathes as if aligning his body with his mind. When his hand graces the page, ink flies over paper in a dance of strokes and curves. Like choreography, there is rhythm and melody in the way he writes—as if the script were embodied in his person.

His words do not lie flat on the page. Instead, the letters appear alive, and the space between and around the letters feels charged. “Negative space,” he explains, “creates the air within which the letter lives and breathes.” To him, the written word is powerful because it is both image and text. The calligrapher’s art is to contemplate and create both form and meaning.  

“When I write, I often make the words slightly difficult to read. I want the brain to wrestle with the form in order to understand the living shape of a word.”

Words like journey and freedom, never cease to fascinate him. Like mantras, he writes the words over and over again. For both writer and reader, their meaning is always in flux.

Malayan grew up in Armenia in a home full of art. His late father, the renowned painter Petros Malayan, taught at the State Institute of Fine Arts of Armenia.

“As a boy, I would look at my father’s art books every night before falling asleep,” he recalls. “I was fascinated by the prints of the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai. His pictures were so lively, and the Japanese writing filled my imagination. I could not read it, but the symbols excited me. I have been captivated by letterforms ever since.”

Camera and interview: Albert Tong
Story and editing: Kaylie Connors
Music: The Secret Trio
Photos: Ruben Malayan

After studying fine arts and graphic arts in Yerevan, Malayan moved to Israel and began working as an art director in Tel Aviv. His work involved developing digital typography, yet Malayan often found himself writing by hand.  All fonts, he explains, have calligraphic roots. “The experiment happens on paper.” He left the commercial world and began to teach himself calligraphy. In the absence of a tutor, once again, books became his teachers. He studied ancient illuminated manuscripts and scoured scholarly publications to teach himself the history of Armenian writing.

The earliest forms of Armenian calligraphy exist in illuminated Christian manuscripts. The alphabet, developed by linguist and ecclesiastical leader Mesrop Mashtots in 405 CE, allowed for both the recording and dissemination of theology to Armenians. A written language also protected Armenians against linguistic dominance in a region that, over centuries, fell to Byzantine, Persian, Ottoman, and Soviet rules.

Malayan is now one of two calligraphers left in Armenia. Last July, he demonstrated his artistry to an eager audience on the National Mall for the Armenia: Creating Home program at the Folklife Festival. For Armenian American visitors, his calligraphy seemed particularly meaningful. An Armenian American woman approached him to say, “These letters are sacred. And they’re ours.”  Her comment, though seemingly minor, reflects Armenia’s emotional relationship with its script.

Yet his experience at the Folklife Festival does not reflect general attitudes toward calligraphy and penmanship, which Malayan finds distressing and tragic. He routinely faces misconceptions of calligraphy as nostalgic handwriting in period style and penmanship as a decorative yet ultimately superfluous skill. Letter culture, he says, is suffering. 

Armenian calligrapher Ruben Malayan
Artwork by Ruben Malayan
Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

Today, we type, tap, and swipe on keyboards and touchscreens. With smartphones and laptops, we send emails and texts, draft essays and reports. In the digital age, communicating messages and recording information has never been easier or faster. Typed letters all look the same—serif and sans serif. “Our writing is so impersonal. Now we all push the same buttons.” We still use letters, but we no longer create them.

“Handwriting is profoundly expressive,” Malayan urges. “Your handwriting is unique to you. Even a simple note that says, ‘Don’t forget the milk!’ will look different from person to person.”

Knowingly or unknowingly, we all make decisions on how to draw letters—from the size and spacing to the shape of a curve, or the speed with which we write. Our focus, posture, and breathing also affect our handwriting. Words penned by hand embody our individual traits, creating an almost intimate imprint of the self on the page. Malayan insists that handwritten words carry the writer’s emotion and energy—regardless of whether the text was penned yesterday or a thousand years ago.

“Writing is memory, both individual and collective,” he says. “When we write, we are intentionally making a record. We are putting down what matters to us—words we want to remember.” To him, written text is memory embodied and the act of writing expresses a will to remember. Early religious texts and current news stories alike are pieces of memory—expressions of lived experience. From the ancient world to the internet age, he believes all writing is connected. Although our tools and materials have changed, writing continues to record and shape our human story.

Armenian calligrapher Ruben Malayan
Ruben Malayan’s booth at the Folklife Festival was lined with canvases.
Photo by Narek Harutyunyan, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

Throughout that story, certain changes have endangered calligraphy traditions. In addition to the digital shift, Malayan says that the widespread popularity of the ballpoint pen in the 1960s had a detrimental effect on calligraphic traditions. With a ballpoint, writing by hand required less skill than with a fountain pen. Regardless of the direction or orientation of the pen, the width of line remained consistent. The convenience was unparalleled and the ballpoint eventually became ubiquitous around the world. As a result, “we lost the plasticity and elasticity of lines, and many traditional scripts were no longer produced,” Malayan laments.

Now, sustaining the art of Armenian calligraphy requires considerable effort. Malayan believes the revival of letter culture will start in the classroom. In fact, he thinks children are unique in that they take the alphabet seriously. As kids learn to read and write, they examine the shapes of letters, learn the sounds they make, and practice drawing freeform symbols. Though penmanship has been increasingly phased out of formal education, schools provide an opportunity for revival. Malayan is currently developing a comprehensive first-of-its-kind primer to support those who wish to learn Armenian calligraphy. He plans to found a school where students can learn Armenian calligraphic traditions as well as experiment with letterforms.

Currently, Malayan is an adjunct lecturer at the American University in Yerevan. In his visual communications course, he teaches his students to generate and express visual ideas. His students are English majors with little to no background in the arts. Yet his curriculum, which draws from calligraphy and typography, is practice-based. Over the course of a semester, his students must learn formal composition—proportions, contrasts, and balance—to create works of their own.

“After developing technical skill comes the question of substance,” he says. Beautiful letters are not enough. An artist must have something to say. “If I have nothing significant to say, I will not write a word. We don’t need more visual pollution.”

Armenian calligrapher Ruben Malayan
Ruben Malayan demonstrates his art for visitors at the Folklife Festival.
Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

For Malayan, advertising exemplifies visual pollution. Billboards, commercials, pop-ups, and flyers plaster our daily lives with consumerist messaging. “Ads are often sexy, funny, or visually appealing. Some use cheap tricks, others are well thought out campaigns. But the message is the always same: buy.”

Discourse and dialogue have little relevance in consumer culture. Malayan urges his students to consider visual messaging that contributes to a larger public conversation. For their final projects, he tasked them to create a poster that responded to the following question: what message is urgent for you to say to Armenia, to the world? This is Malayan’s call to action: to participate in visual culture not as consumers but as citizens.  

During the protests of the recent nonviolent revolution, Malayan worked round the clock to create placards to fuel demonstrations and marches. He felt a sense of responsibility not only to reflect his personal opinions, but also to echo those of others. He observed and listened to the way political discontent played out in the public and private realm. “I wanted to capture what we all were feeling, what was on our minds,” he says.

In this way, his efforts were both anthropological and activist in nature. His work created a feedback loop, capturing the public sentiment and expressing it back on the street. Along with the compelling slogans, his posters featured eternal words like freedom and journey.

Armenian calligrapher Ruben Malayan
“Journey,” created by Ruben Malayan at the 2018 Folklife Festival.
Photo by Sonya Pencheva, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

Maya Potter is a cultural sustainability project assistant at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. At the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, she worked with Ruben Malayan and other artisans in The Workshop to facilitate craft activities and classes for the public.

Wright EX Vin Fiz

National Air and Space Museum
Wood and fabric biplane. Single 35-horsepower Wright vertical four-cylinder engine driving two pusher propellers via sprocket-and-chain transmission. Smaller, experimental version of the standard 1910-12 Wright Model B airplane.

The first crossing of the United States by airplane was achieved by Calbraith Perry Rodgers in 1911. In 1910, famed publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst announced his offer of a $50,000-prize for a U.S. transcontinental flight in thirty days or less. Rodgers' Wright EX biplane was named the Vin Fiz after his sponsor's grape soda product. He left Sheepshead Bay, New York, on September 17, 1911. A "hangar" car, a rolling workshop filled with spare parts to repair and maintain the airplane, followed along. The flight was punctuated by numerous stops, delays, and accidents. When Hearst's 30-day time limit expired, Rodgers had only reached Kansas City, Missouri. Undaunted, he continued on, determined to make the first transcontinental airplane flight whether he received the money or not. He arrived in Pasadena, California, to a hero's welcome, 49 days after setting out. Although Pasadena was the official end of the coast-to-coast journey, Rodgers flew on to Long Beach to complete the flight at the shore of the Pacific Ocean. The total distance covered was 6,914 km (4,321 mi) in 82 hours, 4 minutes, total flying time at an average speed of 82.4 kph (51.5 mph).

The first crossing of the United States by airplane was achieved by Calbraith Perry Rodgers in 1911 in his Wright EX biplane, named the Vin Fiz. Rodgers had a rich personal heritage of exploration and adventure. He was a descendant of Commodore Mathew Calbraith Perry, famous for opening Japan to U.S. trade in 1853, his brother Oliver Hazard Perry, and Commodore John Rodgers, all of whom had historic naval careers. Rodgers's interest in attending the U.S. Naval Academy was thwarted by his deafness, a condition resulting from a serious bout with scarlet fever as a young boy. Given his nautical lineage, he was an avid sailor and was elected to the prestigious New York Yacht Club in 1902. Rodgers had a love of speed, which he pursued through the recently introduced technologies of motorcycles and automobiles.

Rodgers, typically called Cal, was introduced to aviation in June 1911. His cousin, John, a Naval Academy graduate, had been selected to learn to fly the Navy's newly purchased Wright airplane, and was sent to the Wright factory and flying school in Dayton, Ohio, in March 1911. On a visit to his cousin during his training, Cal was immediately hooked on flying, and soon began flight instruction. Shortly thereafter, with his cousin, he ordered a new Wright Model B airplane. A quick study, Rodgers was already flying public exhibitions in Ohio and Indiana with his new aircraft in July. On August 7, 1911, he passed his flight tests for pilot's license number 49, issued by the Aero Club of America. On August 10, he arrived in Chicago to compete in the Chicago International Aviation Meet at Grant Park. He won the duration contest, and along with his performance in other events, earned total prize money of $11,285, and instant celebrity.

Ten months earlier, famed publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, had captured the attention of the aviation world when he announced a $50,000-prize for the first flight across the United States in thirty days or less. The offer was good for one year beginning on October 10, 1910. The bold challenge interested many of the leading names in aviation, including the Wright brothers and Glenn Curtiss. But the technical and logistical demands of such a flight precluded any immediate attempts.

In September 1911, three competitors were finally in the race. Cal Rodgers was one of them, along with Robert Fowler and James Ward. Fowler took off from San Francisco on September 11, but after three failed attempts to cross the Sierras, aborted his transcontinental flight by the end of the month. Ward took off from the east coast on September 13, but withdrew little more than a week later, not even making it out of New York State.

Following the Grant Park competition in August, Rodgers decided to attempt the coast-to-coast flight. While still in Chicago, he secured financial backing from the Armour Company, a local firm which was then introducing a new grape-flavored soft drink called Vin Fiz. Armour provided a special train, emblazoned with the Vin Fiz logo, with cars for the accommodation of Rodgers's family and his support crew, and a "hangar" car, which was a rolling workshop, filled with spare parts to repair and maintain the airplane over the course of the flight. There was even an automobile on board to pick up Rodgers after forced landings away from the rail line. The pilot would receive five dollars for every mile he flew east of the Mississippi River and four dollars for every mile west of the river. Rodgers agreed to pay for the fuel, oil, spare parts, his mechanics, and the airplane itself, which the Wright Company agreed to build. Chief mechanic on the flight was Charles Taylor, who had worked for the Wright brothers since 1901 and had built the engine for the Wright Flyer, the world's first airplane that flew at Kitty Hawk in 1903.

The airplane was a Wright EX, a special design that was used for exhibition flying, which was a slightly smaller version of the Wright Company's standard Model B flyer. Like the support rail car, Rodgers's aircraft carried the Vin Fiz logo on its wings and tail, and was quickly dubbed the Wright EX Vin Fiz. It was powered by a 35-horsepower, Wright vertical four-cylinder engine, and it carried enough fuel for a maximum of 3½ hours flying time.

Rodgers began his epic journey from Sheepshead Bay, New York, on September 17, 1911. The flight was punctuated by numerous stops, delays, and accidents. When the 30-day time limit Hearst imposed for the $50,000 prize had expired, he had only reached Kansas City, Missouri. Undaunted, Rodgers continued on, determined to make the first transcontinental airplane flight whether he received the money or not. Upon leaving Kansas City, he flew due south to Texas, and then made his way across the southern U.S. border toward Pasadena, California, the official termination point of the flight. Rodgers continued to experience frequent mechanical failures, damage to the airplane in hard landings, and weather delays. Trouble arose again on November 3, shortly after passing over Imperial Junction, California, less than 320 km (200 mi) from the finish. At 1,200 m (4,000 ft), an engine cylinder exploded, damaging one of the wings and driving steel shards into Rodgers's right arm. He struggled to regain control of the Vin Fiz and, amazingly, managed to glide the 10 km (6 mi) back to Imperial Junction and land safely. The engine and airplane were repaired a day later, and despite his painful injury, Rodgers departed for Pasadena once again on November 4. Further engine problems forced him down in Banning, California, about half way to his final destination. On November 5 he was airborne again, and after brief stops in Beaumont and Pomona, he arrived in Pasadena to a hero's welcome, 49 days after setting out from Sheepshead Bay.

Although Pasadena was the official end of the coast-to-coast journey, Rodgers wanted to fly all the way to the Pacific shore to complete the flight. Several coastal towns bid for the honor, and Long Beach was the final selection. They agreed to pay Rodgers $1,000, plus part of the gate receipts of an exhibition of the Vin Fiz after arrival. Rodgers took off from Pasadena for the short 37 km (23 mi) trip to Long Beach on November 12. Minutes into the flight, engine failure forced him down near Covina Junction. Repairs to a broken fuel line had him back in the air that afternoon. But again, just a short time after takeoff, near Compton, California, Rodgers was down. This time it was a serious crash. The airplane was severely damaged and Rodgers was badly hurt. It took several weeks to make the Vin Fiz airworthy again and for Rodgers to recover from his injuries. On December 10, yet needing crutches to move about on his still healing ankle, Rodgers boarded his battered aircraft, determined to fly the Vin Fiz all the way to the Pacific Ocean. As at Pasadena, Rodgers's arrival was an organized public event and a large crowd gathered at Long Beach to welcome him. The remainder of the great adventure met without incident and Rodgers landed to cheering crowds. To create a photo opportunity for the press and the spectators the Vin Fiz was rolled into the surf, allowing the Pacific to lap over it wheels. The 6,914 km (4,321 mi) were covered in 82 hours, 4 minutes, total flying time at an average speed of 82.4 kph (51.5 mph). Cal Rodgers had secured his place in aviation history. (Robert Fowler began another west-to-east transcontinental flight on October 19, this time taking a southern route to avoid the mountains. He arrived in Jacksonville, Florida, on February 8, 1912, completing the trip in more than twice as many days as Rodgers.)

Rodgers and his wife liked Pasadena and decided to stay. He kept the Vin Fiz and a second airplane, a two-seat Wright Model B, at nearby Dominguez Field. He made exhibition flights with the Vin Fiz and took up passengers and gave flight instruction with the Model B. He later moved the airplanes to Long Beach and operated from there. On April 3, 1912, Rodgers was airborne in the Model B, making a test flight after some tuning of the engine in preparation for another passenger ride. Witnesses observed a steep dive as Rodgers apparently attempted to avoid a flock of seagulls. In the next instant he was seen struggling with the controls just before the airplane crashed into the surf, only one hundred yards from his landing spot after the last leg of the transcontinental flight in December. Rodgers was killed instantly. Various causes for the accident were put forth, ranging from a seagull jamming the controls to Rodgers's recklessness or carelessness as a pilot. The precise cause remains undetermined. The wreckage of Rodgers's Model B was acquired by one of his mechanics, Frank Shaffer, and his partner Jesse Brabazon. They rebuilt it and flew for approximately one year until it was destroyed in a crash while being piloted by Brabazon's friend, Andrew Drew, who was killed.

The Vin Fiz was acquired after Cal's death by his cousin, Lt. John Rodgers, USN. He offered it to the Smithsonian Institution, but it was not accepted on the grounds that it was very similar to the recently acquired Wright Military Flyer. It then passed to Rodgers's wife, Mabel, who, not long after Cal's death, married Charles Wiggin. They exhibited and flew the Vin Fiz publicly for two years, until Rodgers's mother was awarded possession of the airplane in 1914 in a court ruling regarding Cal's estate. The history of the airplane becomes somewhat murky at this point. According to Charles Taylor, the Wright mechanic who assisted Rodgers on the transcontinental flight, Rodgers's mother shipped the Vin Fiz to the Wright factory in Dayton, Ohio, for refurbishment. Either unable or unwilling to pay for the work, she allowed the airplane to languish at the Wright factory and it was destroyed in 1916 after the company was sold. But this version of events is at odds with the fact that Rodgers's mother had the Vin Fiz restored and donated it to the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh in 1917. The airplane was later acquired by the Smithsonian from Carnegie in 1934.

The probable explanation for the conflicting information lies in the misconception that there was a single Vin Fiz airframe. On the transcontinental flight, several sets of wings and a large supply of other components and spare parts were brought along on the support train. Rodgers's airplane was repaired and rebuilt many times during the trip. By the time the wheels of the Vin Fiz were rolled into the Pacific at Long Beach, almost nothing of the airplane that took off from Sheepshead Bay remained. As a result, at the end of the journey, there were enough flown, genuine Vin Fiz parts to make up more than one airplane. Charles Taylor was probably accurate when he stated that the Vin Fiz sent to the Wright factory (i.e., the intact airplane that Mabel and Charles Wiggin flew in 1912-14) was destroyed. The airplane that ended up at the Carnegie Institute, and then the Smithsonian, was very likely reconstructed from the parts left over from the many repairs and rebuilds during the flight. Thus, the airplane in the NASM collection is genuine in that it is comprised of components that, at various points, were part of the Vin Fiz during the historic coast-to-coast flight.

When on display at the Carnegie Institute, the engine mounted on the Vin Fiz was a wooden mock-up. The whereabouts of the original engine are unknown. At the Smithsonian, an original Wright engine of the correct type, but not associated with the flight nor with Rodgers, was put on the airplane. In 1960, the Smithsonian fully restored the Vin Fiz. In 1996, when it was part of a traveling Smithsonian exhibition, a new wooden mock-up engine was made and placed on the airplane. This was done to reduce potential wear and tear on the artifact caused by repeated removal of the heavy, original engine during assembly and disassembly of the airplane on the many stops of the exhibition tour. The mock-up engine remains on the Vin Fiz.
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