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How Drones Are Helping Scientists Figure Out Whales’ Weight

Smithsonian Magazine

Weighing a wild baleen whale is no easy feat. For one, hulking marine mammals represent the largest animals on the planet, and their aquatic lifestyle makes it difficult for researchers to accurately measure their heft. So while body mass is considered fundamental to the understanding of animal physiology, studies of baleen whales often do not include their weight.

Fortunately, as Jennifer Leman reports for Popular Mechanics, a group of researchers has come up with a way to accurately and non-invasively estimate the weight of wild whales, using aerial images taken by drones. The team’s study, published recently in Methods in Ecology and Evolution, focused on southern right whales—a baleen whale species, frolicking off the coast of Península Valdés, Argentina. But the researchers say their method has far-reaching implications. “Our approach can be directly applied to other marine mammals,” the study authors write.

Historically, data on whale body mass has been derived from dead specimens resulting from whaling operations, bycatch or strandings. But trying to determine the weight of a living whale based on a carcass is difficult. Bloating or deflation of the body can distort measurements, and working with a single dead sample does not allow scientists to track an individual whale’s weight over time. What’s more, lethal sampling—or killing a whale for the purposes of scientific study—is widely considered to be unethical.

This has left researchers with few options when it comes to figuring out just how chunky wild whales are. But knowing the animals’ weight is vital to gauging their overall health. As study co-author Michael J. Moore, a biologist and director of the Marine Mammal Center at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, tells Jessica Leigh Hester of Atlas Obscura, body mass “tells you about the health of the animal, and in the context of its environment, it gives you a sense of how it’s doing nutritionally.”

“If the weight is insufficient,” Moore adds, “then the animal’s not going to get pregnant. It’s a critical number in terms of population.”

Hoping to find a better way to determine whale body mass, Moore and his colleagues used drones to take aerial photos of 86 southern right whales—48 calves, seven juveniles and 31 lactating females—in the clear, still waters off Península Valdés, where the species congregates during its breeding season. The researchers then calculated the animals’ approximate length, width and height, and estimated body shape and volume with the help of computer modelling. Finally, “to obtain a volume-to-mass conversion factor,” the model was used to estimate the body volume of eight North Pacific right whales, which had been lethally captured in whaling operations and whose body masses were known.

“This conversion factor was consequently used to predict the body mass of the free‐living whales,” the study authors explain.

The team’s predictions were in close range to existing body mass data for right whales, though the researchers concede that their method is not perfect. “We had to assume a constant body density of the whales, which is not realistic as the proportion of different body tissues (fat, muscle etc.) changes seasonally as the whales deposit or lose body condition,” explains Fredrik Christiansen, lead author of the new report and ecophysiologist with the Aarhus Institute of Advanced Studies in Denmark.

Jarrod Hodgson, an ecologist at the University of Adelaide who was not involved in the study, tells Hester that with the help of the new technique, scientists will be able to monitor the growth of individual whales, their daily energy requirements, how much prey they need to consume—factors that were difficult to assess without knowing the animals’ body mass.

“It will allow researchers to investigate questions that were previously off-limits or would have required techniques that negatively impacted sampled animals,” says Hodgson.

D.C.'s Newseum Is Closing Its Doors at the End of the Year

Smithsonian Magazine

Citing financial difficulties, the Newseum, a museum dedicated to the history of journalism, First Amendment freedoms and the free press, will close its doors at the end of the year.

In a statement, the Washington, D.C., institution revealed that it has struggled financially for several years and can no longer sustain operations at its current location. Last January, the museum’s founder and primary funder, the Freedom Forum, agreed to sell the building to John’s Hopkins University for $373 million. The university will use the Pennsylvania Avenue building for its D.C.-based graduate programs.

Sonya Gavankar, director of public relations for the Newseum, tells that all of the artifacts and exhibits will remain in place until the end of 2019, when the building closes to the public. At that time, any artifacts on loan from other institutions will be returned to their owners. Everything in the permanent collection will be moved to an archive facility outside Washington until a location is determined for public display.

The museum has hosted dozens of temporary exhibitions on themes including the coverage of Hurricane Katrina, presidential photographers, the Lincoln assassination, the Vietnam War, as well as various exhibitions on editorial cartoonists and exceptional journalists.

The museum also maintains a permanent 9/11 Gallery, which explores the terrorist attacks and includes first-person accounts from journalists who witnessed the event and artifacts including pieces of the World Trade Center and a piece of the plane that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Its Berlin Wall Gallery is also a significant draw; the space includes eight intact sections of the 12-foot high concrete barricade, the largest unaltered section of wall outside Germany, as well as a three-story guard tower that stood near Checkpoint Charlie.

Over the course of more than 11 years, the Newseum drew some 10 million visitors. But, as Sophia Barnes at Washington’s NBC4 reports, the museum struggled to afford the 400,000-foot venue. The museum charges $24.95 for adult visitors, but with many free options just a few blocks away, the Newseum had difficulty competing.

Speaking with NBC4, Gavankar says that the Newseum hopes to reopen in another, more sustainable, place. “We hope to find a suitable location that can serve as the Newseum’s next home but that process will take time,” she says.

Gavankar adds that the Newseum’s traveling exhibits, including deep dives into rock ‘n’ roll, JFK, the Stonewall Riots, and photojournalism, will continue on at museums around the country.

The closing of the museum is no surprise to those familiar with the Newseum’s financial situation. Peggy McGlone and Manuel Roig-Franzia at the Washington Post report that the Newseum has operated at a deficit every year since opening at its current site. “It’s a slow-motion disaster,” one person with knowledge of the museum’s inner workings told the Post.

Initially founded in 1997 in the D.C. suburb of Rosslyn, the Newseum readied to move into Washington, D.C., proper in 2000. Buoyed by early success, it bought its current site along the Potomac River across from the National Art Gallery for about $146 million (adjusted for inflation).

As Kriston Capps at CityLab reports, the opulent space, which opened to the public in 2008, was the baby of late USA Today and Gannett founder Allen Neuharth, who created the Freedom Forum back in 1991.

Construction cost $450 million, twice initial estimates. Burdened with $300 million in debt, the institution struggled to stay afloat from the get-go. Critics point out that despite financial woes, the institution still paid its director a $630,000 salary; other executives and board members were also paid at rates above the norm for a cultural nonprofit.

“This was a museum that purchased a multi-million-dollar building in a location where, when you look around, there are lots of free museums to go to,” Joanna Woronkowicz of Indiana University tells Capps. “While the mission of the organization is unique, in that sense, it’s not unique in what it provides to people who want to go to museums in D.C.”

Like journalism itself, the Newseum will likely survive in some form despite its financial setbacks, but, as Capps surmises, it probably won’t have all the bells and whistles as it had in its present incarnation.

British Government ‘Expresses Regret’ for Māori Killed After James Cook’s Arrival in New Zealand

Smithsonian Magazine

On October 8, 1769, the British explorer James Cook made landing at the Tūranganui River, not far from the modern-day city of Gisborne, New Zealand. As the country prepares to commemorate—and grapple with—the 250th anniversary of this defining event, the British government has expressed its regret for the killings of nine Indigenous Māori in the wake of Cook’s arrival. The government did not, as the BBC points out, go so far as to offer a formal apology.

Laura Clarke, the British high commissioner to New Zealand, met with local iwi, or tribes, in two separate ceremonies. “I acknowledge the deaths of nine of your ancestors … who were killed by the crew of the Endeavor [Cook’s ship],” Clarke said. “It is impossible to know exactly what led to those deaths, but what is clear is that your ancestors were shot and killed by the crew of the Endeavor and others were wounded.”

"It is deeply sad that the first encounter happened in the way that it did,” Clarke continued, “And, to you, as the descendants of those killed, I offer my every sympathy, for I understand the pain does not diminish over time."

“What we did today, really acknowledged, perhaps properly for the first time, that nine people and nine ancestors were killed in those first meetings between Captain Cook and New Zealand Māori, and that is not how any of us would have wanted those first encounters to have happened,” she added.

The colonization of New Zealand by European settlers has had a wide-ranging and lasting impact on its Indigenous peoples, ushering in a loss of population, land, language and culture. But Clarke’s expression of regret focused on the disastrous first encounters that took place between Māori groups and Cook’s crew in the immediate aftermath of the Europeans’ arrival in New Zealand.

The local Māori were mystified by Cook’s great ship, reportedly believing that it was a floating island or a giant bird. A number of armed men approached the boat, in what some experts think was a “ceremonial challenge,” according to a New Zealand government site. But the crew members believed that they were under attack and shot Te Maro, a Ngāti Oneone leader. Not long afterward, Te Rakau, an important chief from the Rongowhakaata tribe, was killed—perhaps once again due to a misunderstanding, when the Māori attempted to exchange weapons with the new arrival. More Māori died when the Endeavor’s crew tried to seize a waka, or canoe, and bring its inhabitants on board the ship, with the goal of establishing a positive rapport with them.

Before departing on his voyage, Cook had been instructed to foster alliances with the indigenous peoples of the lands he discovered, and he reportedly regretted these bungled encounters. “He is often credited with showing forbearance, restraint and understanding,” the government website acknowledges, but adds that Cook’s “record is ambivalent: while he made every effort to avoid bloodshed, Māori were killed on both his first and second voyages to New Zealand.”

Today’s Māori view Cook as a highly problematic figure, one who brought violence and devastation to New Zealand’s Indigenous peoples. Events marking the 250th anniversary of his arrival in New Zealand are expected to draw protests; last month, some Māori groups objected to a replica of Cook’s ship that is circumnavigating the country as part of its national Tuia 250 initiative.

“[Cook] was a barbarian,” Anahera Herbert-Graves, head of Northland’s Ngāti Kahu iwi, told Graham Russell of the Guardian. “Wherever he went, like most people of the time of imperial expansion, there were murders, there were abductions, there were rapes, and just a lot of bad outcomes for the indigenous people.”

The BBC reports that some Māori advocates are upset Clarke’s statement stopped short of a full apology, but others see it as a positive step toward reconciliation.

"I think for me [an expression of regret] is better than an apology; an apology suggests to me that you make a statement and we have left it at that,” Nick Tupara, a spokesperson for the Ngāti Oneone, tells Radio New Zealand. “Whereas a statement of regret suggests there is an opening for some dialogue going forward. It suggests a possibility of a relationship working together and growing together helping each other out.”

Mobility, Comfort and Style- Designing for the Disabled in Victorian America

Smithsonian Libraries
By Adrienne Meyer and Stephen Van Dyk Among the more than half a million pieces of trade literature held at Smithsonian Libraries,  the Cooper Hewitt Museum Library’s Geo. F. Sargent’s more »

A Quilted Menagerie

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
Image features a quilt, the off-white surface with an octagon and diamond grid. Each diamond contains a four-legged animal: one with large antlers, another with a bird perched on its back. Each octagon has an eight-pointed star containing fantastic animals of various types with wings, antlers, tails; some are four-legged and others are bird-like. Please scroll down to read the blog post about this object.Author: Kathryn Berenson Playful birds and beasts parade from left to right across this quilted and corded decorative textile (inv. 1976-68, dimensions 78.5 x 33.5 inches). Each crowned eagle, proud peacock and rooster, amiable lion, flying dragon, and four-legged beast with antlers but no head, appears within an 8-point star set inside a 6-inch-wide octagon....

A New Statue in Times Square Challenges the Symbolism of Confederate Monuments

Smithsonian Magazine

Late last month, a towering statue of a man on horseback, his body twisted backward as though in the heat of battle, was unveiled in Times Square. At first glance, the statue might seem an odd addition to the bright lights and bustle of New York’s flashiest hub, an antiquated relic of a time when prominent men were memorialized with equestrian monuments. But a closer look reveals a decidedly modern artwork. The statue’s rider is an African-American man, his hair pulled into a knot atop his head. On his feet are a pair of Nikes.

As Reggie Ugwu reports for the New York Times, the monument is the latest creation by Kehinde Wiley, who is perhaps best known for painting the official portrait of President Barack Obama that hangs in the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery. Though the statue, titled “Rumors of War,” made its debut in Times Square, it will soon head to Richmond, Virginia—where it will serve as a direct challenge to the Confederate monuments that line one of the city’s famed thoroughfares.

“Rumors of War,” in fact, directly references a statue of the Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart on Richmond’s Monument Avenue, recently re-christened Arthur Ashe Boulevard in honor of the African-American tennis great. But the street is still home to multiple Confederate statues; the first one, which pays tribute to Robert E. Lee, was erected in 1890 amid a “national wave of sentimental monument-building on the 25th anniversary of the end of the Civil War,” according to Michael J. Lewis of the Wall Street Journal. A later statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis was “widely understood to be a symbol of defiant racism, the architectural equivalent of a burning cross,” Lewis adds.

Wiley saw these monuments during a 2016 trip to Richmond for an exhibition of his work at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. He says he was drawn to the Stuart statue because “of the gestural feel of the horse,” according to Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post. But of course, “Rumors of War” is pointedly symbolic, infusing its rider with a dignity and regality that lions of the Confederacy sought to destroy.

“Today,” the artist said during the New York unveiling, per Ugwu of the Times, “we say yes to something that looks like us. We say yes to inclusivity. We say yes to broader notions of what it means to be an American.”

Artist Kehinde Wiley speaks at the unveiling of his new work “Rumors of War” as it is unveiled in Times Square on September 27, 2019 in New York City. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

In some respects, “Rumors of War” is signature Wiley. He is known for his elaborate paintings of black men and women, which blend street culture with the stylistic traditions of European and American masters. His subjects, clad in hoodies and adorned with tattoos, reference such famed works as Jacques-Louis David's Bonaparte Crossing the Alps at Grand-Saint-Bernard and Rubens’ Philip II on Horseback.

But this is Wiley’s first public artwork, rendered not with paint, but in bronze. “What I do in my own work here with regards to sculpture is to allow the city to be the backdrop, to allow a moving and constantly changing America to be the context in which we see this young man riding a massive horse in the middle of Times Square, soon to be in the middle of Virginia,” the artist tells the Associated Press.

Once it moves to its new home, “Rumors of War” will stand near the entrance to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, not far from the Confederate monument that inspired it. The museum commissioned the statue after Wiley proposed the artwork to Alex Nyerges, the institution’s director.

“It was the best idea I had ever heard,” Nyerges tells Kennicott.

Like other locations across America, Richmond is “locked in a struggle over what to do with [Confederate] memorials,” Nyerges adds. With “Rumors of War,” he says, “we change the whole conversation.”

New Organic Compounds Found in Plumes From Saturn's Icy Moon Enceladus

Smithsonian Magazine

Earlier this week, NASA revealed that researchers have detected more organic compounds in the plumes of water jetting from the surface of Enceladus, the icy moon orbiting the planet Saturn. The new molecules include oxygen and nitrogen-bearing organic compounds, or molecules that contain the element carbon.

In 2017, it was revealed that the Cassini space probe detected organic molecules in 2004 and 2008 after flying through plumes of spray from four cracks in the ice near the south pole of Enceladus. Cassini’s instruments determined that 98 percent of the material blown into space was water and ice, while about 1 percent was hydrogen and the rest was composed of carbon dioxide, methane and ammonia.

To dig deeper into the Cassini data, detailed in the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Nozair Khawaja of the Free University of Berlin and his team analyzing data collected by the mass spectrometer on the craft’s Cosmic Dust Analyzer. What they found is evidence of nitrogen and oxygen containing amines, a class of molecules derived from ammonia that are similar to those that combine into amino acids on Earth, reports Ryan F. Mandelbaum at Gizmodo. Amino acids are among the critical building blocks of life as we know it.

Scientists believe Enceladus contains a global subsurface ocean beneath a shell of ice. According to the press release, the plumes may form when hydrothermal vents eject material from the moon’s rocky core. That material mixes with water in the subsurface ocean before it is blasted through the cracks in the surface into space. Some of the water vapor condenses into ice grains, and researchers believe the amines condense on the surface 0f these grains.

The finding raises the possibility that life exists, or could develop in the future, on Enceladus. “If the conditions are right, these molecules coming from the deep ocean of Enceladus could be on the same reaction pathway as we see here on Earth,” Khawaja says. “We don't yet know if amino acids are needed for life beyond Earth, but finding the molecules that form amino acids is an important piece of the puzzle.”

Last year after analyzing the Cassini data the same team found fragments of large, complex organic molecules that they believe were produced by the hydrothermal vents. The researchers hypothesized that large bubbles of gas emanating from the vents in the seafloor could rise through miles of ocean, leaving a thin film of organic molecules on the surface of the sea beneath the moon’s icy shell.

But the amines detected in the new study are even more exciting. “Here we are finding smaller and soluble organic building blocks—potential precursors for amino acids and other ingredients required for life on Earth,” co-author Jon Hillier says in the press release.

Though the Cassini spacecraft met its end during a controlled crash into Saturn in 2017, the massive amount of data it collected during 13 years exploring the Saturn system is still being analyzed. Just last month, data revealed that huge lakes on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan were likely made by explosions of warming nitrogen. Also this year, post-mortem Cassini data suggested that Saturn’s rings are only between 10 and 100 million years old, helped to establish the length of a day on Saturn and revealed that the five tiny moons orbiting within Saturn’s rings are heavily coated in ring dust.

NASA has no firm plans to return to Enceladus. Instead, the space agency is funding the Dragonfly Mission to Saturn’s larger moon Titan, where a large rotorcraft will explore the planet searching for the building blocks of life.

Light Billions of Times Brighter Than the Sun Used to Read Charred Scrolls From Herculaneum

Smithsonian Magazine

Researchers are hoping that a new technology will help them to begin reading charred scrolls dating back 2,000 years. If successful, the technique could help decipher other charred, faded or damaged scrolls and documents from the ancient world.

These particular scrolls were unearthed in 1752 in the ruins of Herculaneum, which was covered in ash by Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. They were discovered, specifically, in the library of a grand villa, believed to belong to Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus. As Nicola Davis at The Guardian reports, the documents were a major find, since the site, which became known as the Villa of the Papyri, is the only known intact library from the ancient world. Most of the documents, however, were charred into rolled up logs, rendering the texts more or less useless.

“Although you can see on every flake of papyrus that there is writing, to open it up would require that papyrus to be really limber and flexible – and it is not anymore,” Brent Seales, director of the Digital Restoration Initiative at the University of Kentucky, tells Davis.

That hasn’t stopped researchers from trying to access the writings, most of which, it’s believed, were lost to history. Attempts have been made to unroll about half the scrolls using various methods, leading to their destruction or causing the ink to fade.

Seales and his team are now seeking to read the text using the Diamond Light Source facility, a synchrotron based in Oxfordshire in the U.K. that produces light that can be billions of times brighter than the sun. They will test out the method on two intact scrolls and four smaller fragments from L'institut de France.

“We... shine very intense light through (the scroll) and then detect on the other side a number of two-dimensional images. From that we reconstruct a three-dimensional volume of the object... to actually read the text in a non-destructive manner,” Laurent Chapon, physical science director of Diamond Light Source, tells George Sargent at Reuters.

Machine-learning algorithms will then attempt to use that data to decipher what was on the scrolls. “We do not expect to immediately see the text from the upcoming scans, but they will provide the crucial building blocks for enabling that visualization,” Seales says in a press release. Eventually, if the technique works, the team hopes to use it on 900 other Herculaneum scrolls from the villa. “The tool can then be deployed on data from the still-rolled scrolls, identify the hidden ink, and make it more prominently visible to any reader,” Seales says.

The isn’t the first time he’s unrolled ancient scrolls. As Jo Marchant reported for Smithsonian magazine in 2018, Seales began researching techniques for creating 3D images of ancient documents and deciphering faded or damaged scrolls back in 2000. In 2005, he first saw the Herculaneum scrolls, most of which are housed in a museum in Naples, and decided he’d focus his technical attention on the documents. “I realized that there were many dozens, probably hundreds, of these intact scrolls, and nobody had the first idea about what the text might be,” he says. “We were looking at manuscripts that represent the biggest mysteries that I can imagine.”

Since then, advancing technology has helped him dig deeper into the documents. In 2016, his team made news when they were able to use micro-CT scans to read a charred scroll found in an ark near the Dead Sea at En Gedi. Because the ink used metals, Seales was able to detect the writing. He then used his advanced software to digitally unroll the scroll and piece it back together to learn that the 1,500-year-old document was snippet from the Book of Leviticus.

But the Herculaneum scrolls pose a different problem: The Romans did not use heavy metals in their carbon-based inks, though some of their inks do contain lead. That makes the contrast between the ink and papyrus not very strong. That’s where the machine learning comes in. Davis reports the team is training its algorithms using bits of charred scrolls where the writing is still visible. The hope is that the software will learn the microscopic differences between parchment where ink once was and wasn’t.

The team has already collected the high-energy X-Ray data from the scrolls and are now training their algorithms. They hope to perfect the process in the next few months.

Most of the writings in open scrolls from the Villa of the Papyri have been philosophical works in Greek on Epicureanism. But there’s a chance that some of the charred scrolls contain Latin texts. It’s also possible that more scrolls remain undiscovered in parts of the Villa that have yet to be excavated. “A new historical work by Seneca the Elder was discovered among the unidentified Herculaneum papyri only last year, thus showing what uncontemplated rarities remain to be discovered there,” as Oxford classicist Dirk Obbink points out to Davis.

If and when the scrolls are revealed, it will be a windfall for historians, classicists and archaeologists alike. “It’s ironic, and somewhat poetic that the scrolls sacrificed during the past era of disastrous physical methods will serve as the key to retrieving the text from those survive but are unreadable,” Seales says in the press release. “And by digitally restoring and reading these texts, which are arguably the most challenging and prestigious to decipher, we will forge a pathway for revealing any type of ink on any type of substrate in any type of damaged cultural artifact.”

Thieves Return Hand Stolen From Montreal Totem Pole, With an Apology Note

Smithsonian Magazine

Outside the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts towers a totem pole by Charles Joseph, a Canadian artist from the Kwakiutl First Nation. In the early hours of September 20, the left hand of this striking artwork was stolen, prompting both the museum and Joseph to issue a plea for its return. Fortunately, their appeals seem to have worked. According to Marian Scott of the Montreal Gazette, the thieves have returned the hand, also taking it upon themselves to leave a rather contrite apology note.

In a statement, the MMFA revealed that the stolen appendage was deposited on the museum’s doorstop at some point on the night of October 1 and October 2. In the apology letter, the vandals explained that at the time of the crime, they were “not in a sober state of mind” and “had no idea what the totem pole was.”

“After we realized what this stood for and represented for so many people, we immediately felt sick to our stomach,” the note continued. “We would like to let all know that in NO WAY, SHAPE OR FORM was this done in spite.”

The theft was particularly upsetting because Joseph’s artwork pays tribute to children who suffered under Canada’s residential school system, which sought to forcibly assimilate the country’s Indigenous peoples. Between the early 19th century and 1996, when the last residential school closed, an estimated 150,000 First Nation, Inuit and Métis children were required to attend the institutions. Students were kept away from their parents for much of the year, and punished severely if they spoke their native language or practiced their ancestral customs. Conditions at the schools were abysmal. “Child neglect was institutionalized,” according to a damning report by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, “and the lack of supervision created situations where students were prey to sexual and physical abusers.”

Joseph, as the CBC reports, was forced to attend a residential school himself. His Residential School Totem Pole depicts, among other symbols, the fox “who bears witness to the past,” the raven “who represents the collusion between Church and State,” and the “wild woman” who “represents tradition and culture,” as the MMFA explains in its statement. The totem pole has been on loan to the institution since 2017.

Image by Private collection. Charles Joseph (born in 1959), Residential School Totem Pole, 2014–16, red cedar, acrylic paint. 1,524 x 762 (including wings), 152.4 cm (diam.). (original image)

Image by Private collection. Charles Joseph (born in 1959), Residential School Totem Pole (detail), 2014–16, red cedar, acrylic paint. 1,524 x 762 (including wings), 152.4 cm (diam.). (original image)

After Joseph learned of the theft of the artwork’s left hand, he made a public request for its return. “It might not mean anything to them, maybe they just liked the way it looked,” he told CBC News. “But bring it back so we can fix it."

“It means a lot to me,” Joseph added.

In their apology note, the thieves stressed that they were, indeed, unaware of the totem pole’s significance. “We were simply ignorant of what it symbolized, and have decided we 100 percent needed to return it,” they wrote, according to the MMFA. “We are sorry, so sorry for any pain and anger we have caused. Love for all people.”

The MMFA has accepted the apology and withdrawn a police complaint made in connection to the incident. “It is reassuring to observe the return of wisdom and clarity following an evening of inebriety,” said Nathalie Bondil, director general and chief curator at the MMFA. She added that the thieves’ change of heart “shows us that art educates and sensitizes us to all of the most important issues, notably our reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.”

Smithsonian miscellaneous collections

Smithsonian Libraries
Vols. 45, 47, 48, 50 and 52 were published as "Quarterly issue, v. 1-5, 1903-10", designed as a medium for the early publication of the results of researches and for reports of a preliminary nature; this form of publication was discontinued after v. 52.

Some volumes issued in revised editions.

Also available online.

Available also via the World Wide Web; access available via SIL PURL.


MSRLSI copy 39088009750118-0266 has bookplate: Smithsonian Institution Libraries, Gift of Nancy M. Prichard.

G.F.M. Memorabilium Saxoniæ subterraneæ : pars prima [-secunda] i. e. Des Unterirdischen Sachsens Seltsamer Wunder Der Natur Erster Theil. Worinnen die Auf denen Steinen an Kräutern, Bäumen, Bluhmen, Fischen, Thieren, und andern dergleichen besondere Abbildungen, so wohl Unsers Sachsen-Landes, als deren so es mit diesen gemein haben, gezeiget werden : mit vielen Kupffern gezieret

Smithsonian Libraries
Title printed in red and black; woodcut head- and tail-pieces, initials.

Includes index.

Frontispiece duplicated in parts 1 & 2.

One plate signed: J.G. Krügner sc.

Errata: at end of index of part 1.

Signatures: ):(⁴ (-4):(4) A-M⁴ N², ²A-L⁴ [M]1 (=4):(4).

Also available online.

SCNHRB copy (39088002772234) has 30 leaves of plates.

SCNHRB copy has bookplate of Robert Honeyman IV.

SCNHRB copy has bookplate of Herbert McLean Evans.

SCNHRB copy inscribed in ink on front free endpaper: Tmos (?) Heyer ... 1841.

SCNHRB copy has an unidentified ink property stamp on back free endpaper.

SCNHRB copy bound in old gray paste-paper; title and decorations in gilt on spine, red edges.


Aritmetices, algebrae ac geometriae institutiones

Smithsonian Libraries
T.p. : Gasparis Antonii Manera clerici / 1757

Smithsonian Institution Libraries. Manuscripts of the Dibner collection, 245

Also available online

Collected by Bern Dibner for his Burndy Library in Norwalk, Connecticut, founded in 1941. Donated to the Smithsonian Libraries in 1974 by Dibner DSI


Marginal computations and diagrams ; in Latin

[Mercantile arithmetic]

Smithsonian Libraries
Spine title : Arithmetick / 1707

Smithsonian Institution Libraries. Manuscripts of the Dibner collection, 137

Also available online

Collected by Bern Dibner for his Burndy Library in Norwalk, Connecticut, founded in 1941. Donated to the Smithsonian Libraries in 1974 by Dibner DSI


On arithmetic, esp. concerning weight, distance, time, and money ; on allegation. Partially rubricated. On leaf 67 "this present year of our Lord" is 1707

Climate Report Warns Oceans and Polar Ice Are in Serious Peril

Smithsonian Magazine

Oceans are getting warmer, more acidic and rising, which in turn weakens fish stocks and harms coastal communities, a new international report has found. Climate change is also supercharging tropical storms and hurricanes, according to the report, directly threatening hundreds of millions people around the globe.

Yesterday, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the United Nations-chartered body studying global warming—released a special report on the ocean and cryosphere, or the frozen parts of Earth. The study is a massive undertaking with 100 authors from 36 nations, citing about 7,000 scientific papers. The findings, especially for the oceans, are overwhelming.

Earth’s oceans have acted as a climate change buffer for the last few decades, reports Brad Plumer at the New York Times. The churning waters have absorbed about 20 to 30 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions produced by humanity, and they have also absorbed about 90 percent of the excess heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases. But that has come at a cost.

The ocean has started warming up with marine heatwaves doubling in frequency since 1982. These heatwaves have increased in intensity, having major effects on sensitive ecosystems like coral reefs. If temperatures are allowed to reach 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, heatwaves will be 20 times more frequent and 50 times more frequent if emissions are allowed to continue climbing even higher, the study concludes.

The chemistry of the oceans is also changing. Warming prevents different layers of ocean from mixing, which in turns decreases oxygen levels and nutrient exchange. All that CO2 is making the water more acidic, which interferes with the life cycles of different organisms, like how oysters make their shells. Over the next few decades, the report concludes, “the ocean is projected to transition to unprecedented conditions.”

All of that is already reshaping habitats across the ocean, with fish abundance and distribution changing. Add those changes to other major ocean problems, like overfishing and pollution, and the scenario is dire.

“The oceans are sending us so many warning signals that we need to get emissions under control," as the report’s lead author Hans-Otto Pörtner, a climatologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany, tells the New York Times. “Ecosystems are changing, food webs are changing, fish stocks are changing, and this turmoil is affecting humans.”

The cryosphere is in equally rough shape. In Arctic regions, it’s expected that 25 percent of near surface permafrost, or soils that are frozen year round, will thaw by 2100, even if temperature increases are held under 2 degrees Celsius. If emissions continue to increase, up to 70 percent of the near-surface permafrost could thaw. That could speed up climate change, since thawing permafrost has the potential to release massive amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. While emerging plants would sequester some of the CO2 release, it’s unlikely they could keep up the rate of the thaw.

All these changes in the water and ice are already being felt by many people—and soon others will feel it, too. Melting permafrost and rising ocean levels are forcing people near the Arctic to relocate villages. Smaller glaciers in mountainous regions of Europe, east Africa, Indonesia and the tropical Andes are expected to lose 80 percent of their ice by 2100. Likewise, avalanches, rock falls and loss of water resources threaten 670 million people living in mountain regions.

Even more, the loss of ice and snow in the mountains threatens agriculture and hydropower in the regions down below. Just yesterday, authorities warned that the massive Planpincieux glacier on the south side of the Mont Blanc massif in the Alps is beginning to collapse, and 8.8 million cubic foot section of the ice is expected to crumble into the valley near the popular hiking town of Courmayeur.

Accelerating sea level rise is threatening coastal communities and low-lying islands. Even with emissions reductions, sea level is expected to rise by one to two feet by 2100. If emissions are allowed to increase, the rise is estimated to be from 2 to 4.75 feet in the same period.

The amount of fish is expected to decrease by a quarter by the end of the century as well, imperiling food security throughout the world and affecting the livelihoods of fishing communities, even in developed nations. “If the fish leave, that affects the small fishing fleets we have up and down the California coast,” as Gretchen Hofmann, a marine biologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara who was not involved in the study, tells Plumer. “So there’s the risk of real economic and social problems.”

According to a press release, the solution to slowing the impacts to the ice and water is familiar to everyone by now: reduce carbon emissions as greatly and as soon as possible.

“The more decisively and the earlier we act, the more able we will be to address unavoidable changes, manage risks, improve our lives and achieve sustainability for ecosystems and people around the world–today and in the future,” says Debra Roberts, co-chair of the IPCC Working Group II.

Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic reports that this is the last of three special reports put out by the IPCC in the last year, including a report last October detailing the impacts of a 1.5 degree Celsius temperature increase and another report with equally sobering report on the impact of climate change on land released last month.

Ten Inventive Attempts to Make Camping More Comfortable

Smithsonian Magazine

“Home is where you park it,” one now-famous Instagram influencer Foster Huntington—a former New York designer at Ralph Lauren—titled his Kickstarter campaign when he traded his fast-paced, high-pressure life behind for days on the road in a suped-up Volkswagon camper in 2013. Now, #vanlife on Instagram has racked up nearly 6 million posts of folks chronicling their adventures in conversion vans, retrofitted school buses and other motorhomes.

Part of glamping—or glamorous camping—is staying in decked out airstreams and trailers in gorgeous places without sacrficing amenities. As advertised on, some of these vehicles can run for more than $300 per night depending on the location. These amped up recreational vehicles have perks like TVs, air conditioning, multiple queen-sized beds, luxurious slide-out additions for more space, mini-kitchens, electricity and so much more.

But downsizing and escaping to the great outdoors is certainly not a new phenomenon—even if trending topics on Instagram make it seem that way. A browse through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office archives shows that inventors have been trying to figure out ways to take beds and kitchens on the road with them for a long time. In honor of this human pursuit, we’ve pulled a few of the more quirky patents from the last century that have paved the way for today’s car campers.

The "Versailles of Dresden" Has Been Rebuilt, 74 Years After World War II

Smithsonian Magazine

This weekend, the people of Dresden will witness a site that hasn’t been seen in nearly 75 years. The royal apartments at the Residential Palace are reopening 300 years after they were first unveiled and 74 years after they were obliterated by Allied bombs.

Catherine Hickley at The Art Newspaper reports that the German state of Saxony decided to restore the apartments in 1997, and reconstruction effort began in 2016. The effort is part of an initiative to restore the entire bombed-out palace, a project that’s so far cost an estimated $350 million.

The royal apartments were not just the sleeping quarters of kings and queens; they were a statement by Augustus II the Strong, king of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. After a long, complex series of wars and alliances, Augustus began to double down on soft power by presenting himself as a grand and powerful monarch.

A big part of that was the construction of the royal state apartments, which were built on the second floor of the Residential Palace. Unveiled during the month-long wedding ceremony of his son Augustus III to Archduchess Maria Josepha of the Habsburgs and inspired by Louis XIV’s Versailles palace, the apartments were a series of opulent rooms, each more over-the-top than the next. Visitors were ushered through a ballroom, the “tower room” full of the king’s world-class porcelain collection, the banqueting hall, the audience chamber and the bedchamber, where no one actually ever slept.

Some artifacts survived the bombing of the palace and have been returned to the reconstructed apartments. Silver furniture, 28 paintings, the porcelain collection, as well as the gold wedding suit worn by Augustus at the unveiling of the apartments will return to the palace.

The apartments themselves had to be recreated from the ground up. Architects relied on etchings and drawings form that original 1719 wedding feast and later photographs to recreate the rooms.

Speaking with Rebecca Schmid of the New York Times, Marion Ackermann, general director of Dresden’s State Art Collections, praised the original apartments for being a “tremendous human achievement,” boasting handcrafted baroque design “to the highest point of precision.” The reconstruction, she calls, more than just a German effort, but rather “a European project in that we had to gather expertise from all over the Continent.” The red silk tapestries found in the audience chamber, for instance, were re-created in Lyon, France; the green silk in the bedroom came from Genoa, Italy.

Ironically, one element of the chambers—the elaborate ceiling paintings by French painter Louis de Silvestre—were preserved by Adolf Hitler, the cause of their destruction. When the war began to go bad, the Führer sent photographers out to document the ceiling and other artworks in case they were destroyed. The team used those images to recreate the paintings. “It was a risk... it could have gone wrong,” Dirk Syndram, director of the museums in the Residential Palace, tells the Times’ Schmid. “I was a bit skeptical—after all, this wasn’t the Sistine Chapel ceiling, it was decoration. But I think it looks very good.”

The Residential Palace is scheduled to be completely rebuilt and restored by 2021. It’s not the only piece of pre-World War II Dresden that’s been brought back. The Frauenkirche, the baroque masterpiece in the city center, was also destroyed during the firebombing of the city. For decades, its rubble pile stood as a reminder of the destruction and a de facto memorial against war. Between 1994 and 2005, the church was rebuilt using many of the original stones that had been preserved in that pile.

While the Allies made difficult decisions to avoid bombing culturally important cities like Rome and Paris, Dresden, called “the Florence of the Elbe” was an exception. Known for its baroque architecture and art museums, it had not been bombed before 1945 and was not considered a major military or economic target. Still, the Allies claimed that important communication lines ran through the city and it was necessary to soften up the area for an impending Russian invasion. Later historians have claimed that the attack on Dresden was primarily to terrorize the German population and, hopefully, lead to an earlier end of the war. Between February 13 and February 15, 1945, 800 British bombers dropped 1,400 tons of bombs on the city and 1,100 tons of incendiary devices primarily on the city center, creating a massive firestorm that flattened the area. Later, 300 American bombers hits transportation hubs, bridges and railways. Another wave of 200 bombers continued the job. An estimated 35,000 to 135,000 people were killed in the bombings.

This Map Shows the Scale of 16th- and 17th-Century Scottish Witch Hunts

Smithsonian Magazine

In 1629, an elderly Scottish woman named Isobel Young was strangled and burned at the stake on charges of witchcraft. As neighbors and relatives testified, Young—the wife of a tenant farmer based in a small village east of Edinburgh—was prone to “patterns of verbal and sometimes physical aggression,” as well as “odd magical characteristics.” Her husband, George Smith, added fuel to the fire claiming that his wife had attempted “to kill him with magic after quarreling about an unsavory house guest.” In total, court records show, 45 witnesses raised complaints against Young, “telling a story that unfolded over four decades.” The verdict was unanimous: guilty.

Young’s case is one of 3,141 recorded in a new interactive map created by researchers at the University of Edinburgh. Drawing on data collected for an earlier university project titled the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft, the tool visualizes an array of locations linked with Scotland’s 16th- and 17th-century witch hunts: among others, accused individuals’ places of residence; sites of detention, trial and execution; and spots targeted by infamous “witch-pricker” John Kincaid, who traveled the country in search of suspects bearing the "Devil’s mark."

“There is a very strong feeling out there that not enough has been done to inform people about the women who were accused of being witches in Scotland,” Ewan McAndrew, the University of Edinburgh’s Wikimedian in Residence, tells the Scotsman’s Alison Campsie. “… The idea of being able to plot these on a map really brings it home. These places are near everyone.

A group of Scottish witches depicted consorting with the Devil (Public domain)

As Neil Drysdale of the Press and Journal reports, the map features an array of previously unpublished data, much of which was extracted from historical records by undergraduate Emma Carroll and uploaded to Wikidata, a public database created by the team behind Wikipedia. While some entries remain limited in scope, outlining little beyond the accused’s name and locality, others are replete with information.

Consider, for instance, the case of Janet Boyman, a healer who was charged with sorcery, witchcraft and consorting with fairies. Per the Survey of Scottish Witchcraft, Boyman, who was executed in 1572, predicted the death of the country’s regent, bore “five bairns” allegedly without feeling any pain and appealed to elvish spirits in hopes of curing a sick man. Today, historians consider Boyman’s trial one of the earliest and most comprehensive examples of witchcraft prosecution in Scotland.

This illustration is from King James VI's 1597 treatise on witchcraft (Public domain)

According to Edinburgh Live’s Hilary Mitchell, Scotland experienced four major witch hunts between roughly 1590 and 1727, when Janet Horne, the last Scot to be executed for witchcraft, was burned at the stake. Much of this ongoing mania can be attributed to the passage of a 1563 act that declared the practice of witchcraft a capital offense. James VI’s notorious witch-hunting fervor also contributed to the movement’s prevalence; in 1597, the king, soon to be crowned James I of England, published a treatise condemning witchcraft and encouraging vigorous prosecution of suspected practitioners.

As historian Steven Katz explains, Europe’s witch hunts stemmed from “the enduring grotesque fears [women] generate in respect of their putative abilities to control men and thereby coerce, for their own ends, male-dominated Christian society.” Ultimately that hysteria claimed as many as 4,000 lives in Scotland—double the execution rate seen in neighboring England, as Tracy Borman points out in History Extra. Although the majority of victims were women (per Mitchell, five times as many women were executed for witchcraft in Scotland than in England), men also faced trial and execution.

Speaking with the Scotsman’s Campsie, McAndrew says, “The map is a really effective way to connect where we are now to these stories of the past.”

He adds, “There does seem to be a growing movement that we need to be remembering these women, remembering what happened and understanding what happened.”

An Angry Walrus Mother Derailed a Russian Naval Expedition

Smithsonian Magazine

Last week, a Russian scientific expedition set off through icy Arctic waters in a Naval landing boat, heading toward the shores of Cape Geller amidst the remote Franz Joseph Land archipelago. But one very angry walrus had other plans for them.

According to Rory Sullivan and Darya Tarasova of CNN, a tusked creature attacked the landing vessel, which had been dispatched from the rescue tugboat Altai, part of the Russian Navy’s Northern Fleet. The Russian Geographical Society, which is a partner in the expedition, said that the boat sank, while the Ministry of Defense reported that “Northern Fleet servicemen ... were able to take the boat away from the animals without harming them,” per a translation by CNN. At any rate, in spite of the tussle, all of the crew members made it safely to shore.

The walrus was a female and was likely striking out over fears for her calves, according to the Russian Geographical Society, which also notes that the incident offers further proof that “the polar latitudes are fraught with many dangers.” Walruses can grow up to 11 feet and weigh up to 1.5 tons; males are typically larger than females, but both boast fearsome tusks and both are known to act aggressively towards humans.

“We have to be careful during research not to get surrounded by ice and walruses without an escape route,” Lori Quakenbush, a biologist from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Arctic Marine Mammal Program, tells Gizmodo’s Ryan F. Mandelbaum. “Calves are curious and will approach a boat, which makes the mother aggressive to defend the calf. Groups of young males can also be aggressive and dangerous to small boats.”

And while the animals might lumber on land, they can be swift and sneaky in the water. In 2012, the National Geographic adventurer Erik Boomer was kayaking around Ellesmere Island in Nunavut and observing walruses from what he thought was a safe distance. But “all of a sudden,” Boomer told the CBC at the time, “a walrus came up out of the water literally right underneath and beside me."

“I saw the walrus' face and it was pushing me and I was getting spun around, and I planted my paddle right between his eyes and held my distance and kept pushing off and kind of whacking him,” he recalled.

The Russian crew has been studying the flora and fauna of Franz Joseph Land, a cluster of nearly 200 islands that are occupied only by military personnel. The members of the team, according to Sullivan and Tarasova, is following the paths of 19th century expeditions, including those of the Austro-Hungarian military officer Julius von Payer and the American explorer Walter Wellman. They are also looking for the remains of Georgy Sedov, a Russian explorer who died in Franz Joseph Land in 1914.

According to the Russian Geographical Society, the Altai crew is continuing to carry out their work—in spite of the walrus-induced setback.

Harriman Alaska series. vol. I-V, VIII-XIV

Smithsonian Libraries
At head of title: Smithsonian Institution.

Edited by C. Hart Merriam.

Vols. 6-7 remain unpublished (October 1933)

Vols. I-V and VIII-XIII are of the original issue, with title: Harriman Alaska expedition with cooperation of Washington academy of sciences. Alaska ... New York, Doubleday, Page & company, 1902-05. To each of these volumes the Smithsonian t.-p. has been prefixed.

Also available online.


A Love Letter to San Juan

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
Image features Signed lithograph depicting a walled ancient city that is being transformed by modern technology. Please scroll down to read the blog post about this objectIn recognition of National Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15, 2019), this week’s Object Of The Day posts celebrate Latinx designers’ works in the collection.   The Puerto Rican Commission for the Celebration of the Year 2000 in San Juan organized the publication of La Ciudad Infinita: Versiones de San Juan. The book highlights the...

This Gel Could Prevent Wildfires

Smithsonian Magazine

Last year, 1.8 million acres of California were burned by wildfire. More than 100 people were killed and 17,000 homes destroyed. It was the state’s worst year ever for fire. By this April, the UK had already recorded more wildfires than any other full year. And this summer, the Arctic went up in flames in an “unprecedented” wildfire season.

Climate change is driving a surge in wildfires, and it’s only going to get worse. That’s why Stanford scientists have developed a preventative treatment. It’s a gel that can be sprayed on wildfire-prone vegetation to help protect it against flames. It has the potential to reduce both the number and the severity of fires.

“We hope these materials can help to equip wildfire managers and fire prevention foresters with the tools that will allow them to switch from exclusively reactive suppression strategies to proactive prevention,” says Eric Appel, a professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford who led the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Untreated vs treated vegetation (Stanford)

There are a number of fire retardants used on active forest fires, but they can easily be washed away by rain or blown away by wind, so they don’t last long enough to prevent new fires. The new gel-like material can be used as a carrier fluid for these traditional fire retardants, making them stick to vegetation throughout the wildfire season.

The gel is based on cellulose—plant fiber—and uses materials already approved for use in food, drug, cosmetic and agricultural products. It will last through an entire fire season, then slowly degrade. It can be sprayed by a firefighter on the ground or in larger amounts from a plane or helicopter.

Developing the gel was a three-year process. Appel and his team worked with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to test the gel material on grass and chamise (a shrub common in California). They found that the gel provided 100 percent protection against fire even after half an inch of rain. In contrast, retardants typically used by firefighters would be gone or nearly gone by that point. The team is continuing to test the gel on roadside areas.

“The real proof is always in the pudding, and it was extremely satisfying to see the efficacy of these treatments at stopping wildfires,” Appel says.

The key to the approach is the fact that most wildfires happen in select high-risk areas, Appel says. They are largely caused by humans, happening over and over again in the same places—stray embers at campgrounds, tossed cigarettes on roadsides, sparks from electrical lines. So firefighters could prevent most fires by focusing solely on these areas.

“With the right tool in hand, you would only need to treat a small amount of land—not large swathes of the forest—to prevent most fires from occurring in the first place,” he says.

Alan Peters, a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection division chief, monitored some of the test burns using the gel. "We don't have a tool that's comparable to this," he said in a press release. "It has the potential to definitely reduce the number of fires."

Nobel Prize in Medicine Awarded to Scientists Who Revealed How Cells Respond to Different Oxygen Levels

Smithsonian Magazine

Early this morning, the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institutet notified three researchers, two Americans and a British scientist, they will be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work revealing how cells sense and adapt to oxygen availability. The research has not only illuminated details of human physiology, but has paved the way for treating medical problems including anemia and cancer.

The joint prize is being split between William G. Kaelin, Jr., a doctor and medical researcher at Harvard University and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Peter J. Ratcliffe, an Oxford professor with the Francis Crick Institute, and Gregg L. Semenza of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Each research team worked independently for over two decades to determine the response of cells to oxygen abundance. Mitochondria, the little organelles found in the cells of almost every living thing, need oxygen to produce energy. But if they receive too much or too little oxygen, they don’t perform their job well. So the body has developed molecular “machinery” that helps regulate oxygen when environmental levels are too low or too high. This type of oxygen regulation occurs when the body acclimates to higher altitudes, allowing cells to adjust to the lower levels of oxygen in the environment.

Much of that regulation, previous research established, is controlled by a hormone called erythropoietin (EPO), which boosts the concentration of oxygen-carrying red blood cells. Just how varying oxygen levels caused the EPO genes to turn on and boost oxygen levels, however, was unknown.

Using gene-modified mice, Semenza and his team found that bits of DNA next to the EPO gene were responsible for mediating the body’s response to oxygen levels. Semenza and Ratcliffe both found that oxygen-sensing mechanisms were also located in almost every type of tissue in the body. In particular, they identified a protein complex called hypoxia-inducible factor (HIF), composed of two proteins, HIF-1 alpha and ARNT, that can bind themselves to the DNA, signaling low oxygen levels and stimulating the production of EPO.

Kaelin, meanwhile, was researching an unusual disorder called von Hippel-Lindau’s disease (VHL disease), a genetic condition that dramatically raises the risk of some cancers in families with the mutations. In particular, report Gina Kolata and Megan Specia at the New York Times, the cancers are associated with overproduction of blood vessels and increased production of EPO. “I thought it had something to do with oxygen sensing,” Kaelin says.

He was right, and his work helped to further flesh out the body's processes to sense and adjust oxygen levels. “It is one of the great stories of biomedical science,” George Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School tells the Times. “Bill is the consummate physician-scientist. He took a clinical problem and through incredibly rigorous science figured it out.”

The research not only fills in gaps about the oxygen-sensing process, but it also opens up new avenues for combating common diseases. In chronic renal failure, for instance, reduced EPO expression often leads to anemia. Many cancers highjack the oxygen-sensing system to stimulate blood-vessel growth and make conditions right for the spread of cancer cells. Research is currently underway to develop drugs that can activate or block these oxygen sensors to combat these diseases.

Randall Johnson, prize committee member, said in a video interview that though some of these discoveries were made in the mid 1990s, the trio is receiving the award now because further research has illuminated the oxygen-sensing process. “Scientists often toss around this phrase ‘textbook discovery,’” he says. “I’d say this is essentially a textbook discovery. This is something basic biology students will be learning about when they study, at age 12 or 13 or younger, biology, and learn the fundamental ways cells work.”

According to Reuters, Thomas Perlmann, a member of the Nobel Assembly who phoned the three men, said they were all very excited by the honor. “They were extremely happy, and happy to share the prize with each other,” he says.

Kaelin, he says, was almost speechless, and Semenza was still asleep when the call came. Ratcliffe, meanwhile, was in his office, working on a grant proposal. The prize ceremony will take place on December 10, on the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death.

Tiny Stone Tools Show Humans Hunted in the Rainforest 45,000 Years Ago

Smithsonian Magazine

A large assemblage of tiny stone tools found in Sri Lanka that date back 45,000 years suggest that not only were humans hunting prey within dense jungles earlier than previously believed, but that they also were in possession of tools that allowed them to occupy and survive in many different habitats.

For the new study, which appears in the journal PLOS One, a team from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany took a closer look at the tools, or microliths, found in Fa-Hien Lena cave in Sri Lanka.

Humans are believed to have occupied the cave in Sri Lanka about 41,000 years ago, and only abandoned it about 4,000 years ago. The microliths found in the cave are oldest ever found in south Asia.

As Isaac Schultz at Atlas Obscura writes, the stone tools needed to hunt and process the types of arboreal monkeys and squirrels found in the jungle are smaller than the weighty hand-axes needed to process large savanna animals like antelope.

“They are seen as being highly flexible toolkits that enabled humans to survive in a variety of different environments, hunting very different animals and using very different plants,” archaeologist Patrick Roberts, a co-author of the new study, tells Schultz.

To better understand the stone tools, the team analyzed pieces ranging in age from 45,000 to 48,000 years. The team also recreated their production methods, confirming that the objects were indeed tools and not just naturally occurring stones. “We found clear evidence for the production of ‘miniaturised’ stone tools or ‘microliths’ at Fa-Hien Lena, dating to the earliest period of human occupation,” lead author Oshan Wedage explains in a press release.

The ancient tools are similar to tools used by Sri Lankan rainforest cultures just 4,000 years ago, meaning that almost as soon as humans moved to the island, they had to the right tools to create a long-term sustainable culture in the rainforest.

According to the recent paper, the microliths are similar to those found in sub-Saharan Africa, East Africa, Europe, the Mediterranean and northern and eastern Asia. The appearance of these microlith “toolkits” in various environments around the globe supports the idea that humans didn’t avoid certain habitats, but had the tools and skills to adapt to many different types of homes.

“Significantly, microliths were clearly a key part of the flexible human ‘toolkit’ that enabled our species to respond–and mediate–dynamic cultural, demographic, and environmental situations as it expanded over nearly all of the Earth’s continents during the Late Pleistocene, in a range currently not evident among other hominin populations,” the team writes.

In a separate paper published on the cave earlier this year, researchers reported discovering 15,000 animal bones in the cave, most from monkeys and squirrels. For, Lorraine Boissoneault reported at the time that researchers hoped to find similar evidence from the rainforests in Africa, which would likely predate even the Sri Lanka tools.

Conducting archaeological digs in rainforests is tough business, with researchers facing dangerous insects and animals, disease, tough living conditions and unstable political situations. Still, Roberts, who was involved in both papers, was hopeful. “I would be very surprised if we don’t find evidence for humans in tropical rain forests very early on,” he said.

Six Elephants Die After Plummeting Down a Waterfall in Thailand

Smithsonian Magazine

In the early hours of Saturday morning, rangers at the Khao Yai National Park in Thailand heard loud elephant calls coming from a ravine. When they arrived to investigate, as Richard C. Paddock and Muktita Suhartono of the New York Times report, the rangers discovered a grim scene: six dead elephants, seemingly killed by a raging waterfall known as Haew Narok—or “Hell’s Abyss.”

No one witnessed the incident, but track patterns at the site, along with elephants’ known tendency to form close social bonds, lead park officials to believe that a calf fell over the waterfall and five adults died while trying to save it. This is not, in fact, the first time that such a tragedy has occurred at Haew Narok; in 1992, according to the BBC, a herd of eight elephants plunged to their deaths there.

The national park had previously erected fencing around Samor Poon Creek near the waterfall, but “it was not sufficient in this case,” Paddock and Suhartono write.

Two members of the herd were discovered alive on a cliff overlooking the waterfall, reports Li Cohen of CBS News. The surviving elephants had trumpeted the distress calls that alerted rangers to the deaths; they appeared exhausted, and were struggling to climb out of the ravine. Edwin Wiek, founder of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, tweeted that one is believed to be the mother of the calf that died.

Officials left the elephants large amounts of bananas, in an effort to help them restore their energy.

“There is no trace of them in the water, so the worry that they drowned like the others in their herd is not there anymore,” Kanchit Srinoppawan, director of the national park, tells Paddock and Suhartono. “We believe they have brought themselves to safety, but we are still searching for them.”

This photo, taken on Saturday, shows a dead elephant at the bottom of the waterfall. (Panupong Changchai/Thai News Pix/AFP via Getty Images)

Park officials now face several challenges. For one, as the BBC reports, the decomposing elephant bodies threaten to contaminate drinking water. Experts have set up a net downstream to stop the carcasses from reaching a major dam. Efforts are also underway to prevent similar incidents from happening. Varawut Silpa-archa, Thailand’s Natural Resources and Environment Minister, has ordered the construction of a barricade to stop wildlife from falling into the waterfall, according to the Bangkok Post. He has also called for “food banks” to be set up around the park so animals do not feel compelled to approach dangerous areas in times of food scarcity.

An estimated 3,000 wild elephants live in Thailand, with as many as 4,000 more being kept in captivity, often in “severely inadequate conditions,” a 2017 report by World Animal Protection found. Like other Asian elephants, which are classified as “endangered” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), wild elephants in Thailand are threatened by habitat loss and poaching.

The Khao Yai National Park is home to around 300 wild elephants. And for now, the fate of the two animals who survived the incident at Haew Narok is uncertain. Wiek tells the BBC that the pair may have difficulty surviving, because elephants rely on their herd for protection and finding food. The impact of the six deaths may be emotional, too; elephants are sensitive and empathetic animals, known to take a marked interest—and perhaps grieve—the bodies of their dead fellows.

“It's like losing half your family,” Wiek says. “There's nothing you can do, it's nature unfortunately.”

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