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Passional zoology; or, Spirit of the beasts of France. By A. Toussenel. Tr. by M. Edgeworth Lazarus

Smithsonian Libraries
Translation of L'esprit des betes; zoologie passionnelle, mammifères de France.

Do Our Brains Find Certain Shapes More Attractive Than Others?

Smithsonian Magazine

Jean (Hans) Arp, Consiente de sa Beauté (Conscious of Her Beauty), 1957, polished bronze. Image courtesy of Chrystal Smith, Art Associate, Science.

A century ago, a British art critic by the name of Clive Bell attempted to explain what makes art, well, art. He postulated that there is a “significant form”—a distinct set of lines, colors, textures and shapes—that qualifies a given work as art. These aesthetic qualities trigger a pleasing response in the viewer. And, that response, he argued, is universal, no matter where or when that viewer lives.

In 2010, neuroscientists at the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute at Johns Hopkins University joined forces with the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore to conduct an experiment. What shapes are most pleasing, the group wondered, and what exactly is happening in our brains when we look at them? They had three hypotheses. It is possible, they thought, that the shapes we most prefer are more visually exciting, meaning that they spark intense brain activity. At the same time, it could be that our favorite shapes are serene and calm brain activity. Or, they surmised we very well might gravitate to shapes that spur a pattern of alternating strong and weak activity.

Image courtesy of Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute, Johns Hopkins University

To investigate, the scientists created ten sets of images, which they hung on a wall at the Walters Art Museum in 2010. Each set included 25 shapes, all variations on a laser scan of a sculpture by artist Jean Arp. Arp’s work was chosen, in this case, because his sculptures are abstract forms that are not meant to represent any recognizable objects. Upon entering the exhibition, called “Beauty and the Brain,” visitors put on a pair of 3D glasses and then, for each image set, noted the their “most preferred” and “least preferred” shape on a ballot. The shapes were basically blobs with various appendages. The neuroscientists then reviewed the museum-goers’ responses in conjunction with fMRI scans taken on lab study participants looking at the very same images.

Image courtesy of Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute, Johns Hopkins University

“We wanted to be rigorous about it, quantitative, that is, try to really understand what kind of information neurons are encoding and…why some things would seem more pleasing or preferable to human observers than other things. I have found it to be almost universally true in data and also in audiences that the vast majority have a specific set of preferences,” says Charles E. Connor, director of the Zanvyl Krieger Mind/Brain Institute.

Beauty and the Brain Revealed,” an exhibition now on display at the AAAS Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., allows others to participate in the exercise, while also reporting the original experiment’s results. Ultimately, the scientists found that visitors like shapes with gentle curves as opposed to sharp points. And, the magnetic brain imaging scans of the lab participants prove the team’s first hypothesis to be true: these preferred shapes produce stronger responses and increased activity in the brain.

As Johns Hopkins Magazine so eloquently put it, “Beauty is in the brain of the beholder.”

Now, you might expect, as the neuroscientists did, that sharp objects incite more of a reaction, given that they can signal danger. But the exhibition offers up some pretty sound reasoning for why the opposite may be true.

“One could speculate that the way we perceive sculpture relates to how the human brain is adapted for optimal information processing in the natural world,” reads the display. “Shallow convex surface curvature is characteristic of living organisms, because it is naturally produced by the fluid pressure of healthy tissue (e.g. muscle) against outer membranes (e.g. skin). The brain may have evolved to process information about such smoothly rounded shapes in order to guide survival behaviors like eating, mating and predator evasion. In contrast, the brain may devote less processing to high curvature, jagged forms, which tend to be inorganic (e.g. rocks) and thus less important.”

Image courtesy of Flickr user wecand

Another group of neuroscientists, this time at the University of Toronto at Scarborough, actually found similar results when looking at people’s preferences in architecture. In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year, they reported that test subjects shown 200 images—of rooms with round columns and oval ottomans and others with boxy couches and coffee tables—were much more likely to call the former “beautiful” than the latter. Brain scans taken while these participants were evaluating the interior designs showed that rounded decor prompted significantly more brain activity, much like what the Johns Hopkins group discovered.

“It’s worth noting this isn’t a men-love-curves thing: twice as many women as men took part in the study. Roundness seems to be a universal human pleasure,” writes Eric Jaffe on Co.Design.

Gary Vikan, former director of the Walters Art Museum and guest curator of the AAAS show, finds “Beauty and the Brain Revealed” to support Clive Bell’s postulation on significant form as a universal basis for art, as well as the idea professed by some in the field of neuroaesthetics that artists have an intuitive sense for neuroscience. Maybe, he claims, the best artists are those that tap into shapes that stimulate the viewer’s brain.

“Beauty and the Brain Revealed” is on display at the AAAS Art Gallery in Washington, D.C., through January 3, 2014.

After 60 Years, An Expedition Determines Highest Peaks in U.S. Arctic

Smithsonian Magazine

There’s no question that at 20,310 feet, Denali is the highest peak in North America. The identity of the highest mountain beyond the Arctic Circle, however, was disputed for almost 60 years, Ria Misra at Gizmodo reports. Now, the matter has finally been resolved thanks to technology created by Matt Nolan, a glaciologist from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

While researchers had a pretty good grasp on the heights of mountains in the Wrangell, St. Elias and Alaska ranges in southern and central parts of Alaska, when it came to the Land of the Midnight Sun's Brooks Range, stretching 700 miles between the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and the Yukon above the Arctic circle, things were a little less certain.

The conflict dated back to 1956, when a USGS survey tried to map the Brooks Range, Misra reports. One set of data indicated Mt. Chamberlin was the highest, while another map with a different scale said Mt. Isto was the highest.

Historically, measuring a mountain has been pretty difficult—in the past, trigonometric methods were used, but they are often inexact compared to modern methods. Today, measuring a peak down to the nearest inch means getting an instrument to the top, usually a GPS receiver. But climbing to the summit of some peaks, like those in the remote mountains of Alaska's Brooks Range, can be incredibly difficult, time-consuming and costly.

Nolan decided that determining the highest peaks in the Brooks Range would be the perfect way to test his new fodar setup, which uses a DSLR camera connected to a GPS unit to collect data for accurate 3-D maps of an area. “It’s not like no one could measure this before—it was just way too expensive to do so,” Nolan tells Misra.

Nolan's technology is similar to airborne lidar. While lidar can cost half a million dollars and requires a twin-engine plane and a separate operator to use, Nolan says his fodar setup, which he plans to use to measure the mass of receding glaciers in Alaska, costs $30,000 and can be run by a pilot in a single-engine plane, according to a press release

To put his fodar to the test, Nolan enlisted the help of Kit DesLauriers, one of the world’s greatest ski mountaineers and the first person to ski down the Seven Summits, the seven highest peaks on Earth. Her job was to make it to the tops of Chamberlin and Isto and use a differential GPS system to measure their heights. At the same time, Nolan would use his fodar to map the peak, allowing them to test the accuracy of the new technology.

For DesLauriers, who made the climb with a photographer and another alpinist, it was a grueling 12-day expedition in the spring of 2014. “The GPS antenna, mounted to a steel post in my backpack, required a constant unobstructed view of the sky which forced me to find creative ways to adapt my usual ski carrying system while climbing,” DesLauriers says in the press release. “Instead of a normal rest stop to eat and hydrate, I used the rare moments standing still to note my location and time in a field journal so that Matt could have as much data as possible to compare our measurements. The process made climbing the peaks, which took on average a 10 hour summit push after a multi-day approach, more difficult but also more rewarding.”

The fodar method was accurate down to about eight inches, according to results, which were published in the latest issue of the journal The Cryosphere. The study reveals that Mt. Isto is the highest peak in the American Arctic at 8,975.1 feet. In a surprising twist, Mt. Hubley edged into second place with 16 feet on Mt. Chamberlin, which came in third at 8,898.6 feet.

Upton Sinclair Was a Socialist Candidate Who Succeeded Through Failure

Smithsonian Magazine

A self-proclaimed socialist decides to run for high office. And, for practical political reasons, he becomes a Democrat to do so.

Soon he attracts enthusiastic supporters to his cause with his unconventional ideas for transforming the economy. His campaign is portrayed as a revolution, upsetting received wisdom about politics and media. And, despite strong opposition from the party’s establishment, he goes on to win the Democratic nomination. 

Is this the future of Bernie Sanders in 2016? No. It’s the past: Upton Sinclair in California’s race for governor in 1934.

The U.S. has had its share of socialist candidates and socialist politicians, but Sinclair’s was among the most consequential. Sinclair’s candidacy is also among the most closely studied. The Campaign of the Century is the title of Greg Mitchell’s now classic book about Sinclair’s run. Mitchell—no relation to the author—showed how the 1934 governor’s race changed politics, opening the door to the national media-driven, consultant-managed campaigns we still have today. This was Sinclair’s inadvertent revolution—and more revolutionary than anything Sanders has done yet.

Sanders is echoing Sinclair’s message: The capitalists have too much power and must be stopped. “Capitalists will not agree to any social progress completely eliminating unemployment because such a program would reduce the supply of cheap labor,” Sinclair said. “You will never persuade a capitalist to cause himself losses for the sake of satisfying people's needs.”

Sinclair was a famous crusading journalist and novelist when he ran for governor, and his campaign was different in form from today’s anti-establishment bid. Sinclair’s campaign was part of the larger “End Poverty in California” (EPIC) campaign. It swept up the nation, and was the subject of books and coverage and other forms of media coverage. More than 1,000 EPIC clubs were launched, giving Sinclair a network far deeper than an online fundraising database.

Sinclair published a short book called: I, Governor and How I Ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future. It was full of ideas—from state takeovers of farms and factories, to the establishment of a state-managed cooperative economy, to a $50-a-month pension for the elderly, all to be financed by a California monetary authority.

Sinclair won the Democratic primary easily. Despite the fact that history does not necessarily repeat, what is most interesting to note, in light of current political facts, is what happened after Sinclair won the nomination.

Sinclair’s Republican opponent, incumbent Gov. Frank Merriam, was a rather lackluster personality, not a Trump-type or a Cruz-type firebrand. Merriam had been lieutenant governor and assumed the governorship on the death of his predecessor only a few months before the 1934 general election. Despite his limitations, Republicans and many conventional Democrats felt so threatened by the prospect of a radical Sinclair governorship that they rallied around, and voted for, Merriam. With the aid of a major (and pioneering) negative campaign, including Hollywood-produced attacks against Sinclair, Merriam won the 1934 election.

That result, however, was not the end of the story. The EPIC campaign had substantially boosted Democratic registration in California and some EPIC Democrats were elected to the legislature, even as Sinclair lost. Four years later, an EPIC Democrat, Culbert Olson, was elected governor. Olson was something rarer than a socialist in American politics—he was an avowed atheist.

So you can read this tale in various ways. On the one hand, Sinclair lost the 1934 election. On the other, he brought new voters into the political process and generally tilted California toward the left.

Olson was not a particularly effective governor and on key issues often was opposed by members of his own party in the legislature. For example, Olson’s plan for a state health insurance program was quickly killed. In 1942, Olson was defeated for re-election by Republican Earl Warren. Republicans then held the governorship until 1959 when Jerry Brown’s father, Democrat Pat Brown, became governor. For decades thereafter, Republicans and Democrats each had their share of governors.

Is there any lesson from Sinclair and his aftermath? Sinclair himself published an account in 1935, I, Candidate for Governor and How I Got Licked, that entertainingly repeated his themes, and portrayed the campaign as a success, despite its defeat.

So yes, a losing socialist can change politics. But another lesson is that the general electorate tends to reject perceived radicalism, even when such candidates attract a cadre of loyal enthusiasts. And even if elected, such candidates would have to face the complex checks and balances of the American political system that make it easier to block great plans than to enact them.

This was written for Zocalo Public Square.

Podcast: Kim Stanley Robinson Says 'Either You're An Environmentalist, Or You're Not Paying Attention'

Smithsonian Magazine

Think of the Anthropocene as a science fiction thought experiment. We imagine future geologists looking back into the rock record, and trying to pinpoint when humans became the dominant geologic force. In many ways, science fiction is the perfect genre for exploring environmental issues – running out scenarios and “what ifs” to their extremes, and imagining how that world would look and feel.

Award-winning science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson does exactly that in many of his works. In this episode of Generation Anthropocene, producer Mike Osborne sits down with Robinson to talk about his creative process and environmental thinking, what makes for good science fiction, and the genre’s capacity to imagine future societies shaped by climate change.

Related podcasts by Generation Anthropocene:

On the Way to Peak Phosphorus

How Humans Caused Mass Extinctions Thousands of Years Ago

What Our Garbage Can Teach Us

Texas Just Started Building the Largest Carbon Capture Facility Ever

Smithsonian Magazine

Humans are pros at putting carbon dioxide into the air. Plants, bacteria, and even fungi are great at taking it out. But as we keep producing more and more and more carbon dioxide, it can be hard for them to keep up. So in a bid to help balance things out, construction is beginning just outside Houston on a $470 million dollar facility that will help soak up the waste of our industrial existence. 

The plant will do this through carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), "a key technology option in reducing carbon dioxide emissions from the world’s fossil fuel power plants," explains Scientific American.

The idea behind CCS technology is that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions that would normally be released in the combustion process are instead captured and stored. These emissions can be captured before or after the combustion process, depending on the technology and approach used. As a result, CCS can “clean up” fossil fuel powered plants, including the coal plants that account for 37% of the U.S. electricity supply.

A statement from the Department of Energy explains where the captured carbon will go: 

Once completed, the energy technology project will capture about 1.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) annually from an existing coal-fired power plant in Texas. The captured CO2 will then be used to extract additional, hard-to-access oil from a previously depleted field 80 miles away, safely storing the carbon underground in the process.

Capturing carbon dioxide and then using it to extract even more fossil fuels is less than ideal, but one of the biggest problems with CCS to-date is the cost.

According to Scientific American, "concerns exist as to whether or not the greenhouse gas can be stored permanently, without significant leakage over time." Cross your fingers that it will stay in the ground. 

Histoire naturelle des lépidoptères d'Europe / par H. Lucas ; ouvrage orné de près de 400 figures peintes d'après nature, par A. Noel, et gravées sur acier

Smithsonian Libraries
Plates have added illustrated t.p.

Plates are hand-colored.

"Imprimerie de Bacquenois"--Verso of t.p.

Communication Design

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
Civilization Civilization was founded by Michael Ellsworth, Corey Gutch, and Gabriel Stromberg in Seattle. Since the studio’s inception in 2007, it has built identity systems, digital experiences, printed materials, environmental graphics, and exhibitions that are engaging, empathetic, sustainable, and create meaningful connections. Working with those committed to creating positive change, the studio’s clients include the...

Children Have to Worry About Identity Theft, Too

Smithsonian Magazine

It’s not just adults who have to worry about identity theftone study reports that one in ten children have compromised Social Security numbers.

Bill Hardekopf at the Christian Science Monitor reports that nearly 10 percent of kids under 18 have had someone else use their Social Security number. Only about 0.2 percent of adults actually have the same problem. According to Hardekopf, identity thieves know that kids are easier targets because “children rarely use their Social Security number and parents usually do not monitor the child’s identity.”

Using a child’s Social Security number, these thieves can do everything they might do with an adult’s: open a line of credit, apply for government benefits, purchase homes and cars, get driver licenses and secure employment. The largest amount of fraud found in the study—which looked at 4,000 incidents of child identity theft—totaled $725,000, using the identity of a sixteen year old girl. Over three hundred of the victims were under five years old, and the youngest was just five months old. Take this anecdote about a kid named Nathan from Kentucky:

Nathan, a 14-year-old, had a credit history that went back more than 10 years. Several credit cards and a foreclosed mortgage were already in his credit history, all from a suspect living in California. The thief established good credit for the first 10 years and was able to finance a $605,000 home in CA through first and second mortgages. He also used the boy’s SSN to open several credit accounts.

Then, the home loans went into default and the bank foreclosed. Additionally, a credit account with over $2,000 in unpaid charges went into collections. His parents filed a police report and the fraud was assessed at over $607,000.

The researchers who did the study point out that parents are increasingly aware of the online risks like cyberbullying, but are generally unaware of the dangers of identity theft. And, according to Hardekopf, some states don’t even have a system to handle child identity theft. Delaware, Oregon and Maryland have all recently put in place laws that let parents set up a child’s credit identity and freeze that account until the child turns 18. Other states are considering following suit.

The researchers suggest that parents stay vigilant about their children’s identity, and if mail starts coming for a kid with things like pre-approved credit cards, that might be a sign that their identity has been used somewhere. “Put plainly,” they write, “it is not simply enough to guard your own identity in the 21st Century, you must also guard your child’s.” 

Chauvet Cave Paintings Could Depict a 37,000-Year-Old Volcanic Eruption

Smithsonian Magazine

The Chauvet-Pont D'Arc cave is one of the most famous underground caverns in the world, housing one of the oldest and best-preserved collections of prehistoric cave paintings ever discovered. Now, researchers believe that some of the most mysterious, abstract designs found in the cave may be among the earliest paintings of volcanic eruptions.

While most of the drawings in the Chauvet cave depict animals like wooly rhinoceroses, bears, and cave lions, a few drawings deep within the interior have puzzled archaeologists since the cave was discovered in 1994. The red-and-white paintings appear to be shaped like something spraying out of a nozzle, and in some cases were covered up by later drawings, Ewen Callaway writes for Nature. But according to a new study published in the journal PLOS One, researchers believe the images could depict volcanic eruptions nearly 37,000 years ago.

“It is very likely that humans living in the Ardèche river area witnessed one or several eruptions,” the team led by Jean-Michel Geneste, writes in the study. “We propose that the spray-shape signs found in the Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave could be the oldest known depiction of a volcanic eruption.”

Previously, the oldest-known recording of a volcanic eruption was a Neolithic mural discovered in the ruins of Çatalhöyük, an ancient city in southwestern Turkey. Researchers believe that painting shows a 7,500 BC eruption by Mount Hasan, an inactive volcano nearby the city. If the Chauvet cave paintings do depict volcanic eruptions, they would be by far the oldest yet discovered, Sanskrity Sinha reports for International Business Times.

Example of a spray-shape sign from Chauvet-Pont d’Arc cave (figure B) compared to the oldest known depictions of volcanic eruptions (figure E). (D. Genty/V. Feruglio/D. Baffier)

The closest volcano to the Chauvet cave that was active around the time the paintings were made would have been about 22 miles northwest of the caverns, in the Bas-Viverais region, John Lichfield writes for The Independent. While volcanic eruptions can take many different forms, geologists believe that the Bas-Viverais range may had “strombolian” eruptions, which look similar to the firework-like spray depicted on Chauvet’s walls.

Even so, prior to this study, researchers had only discovered evidence for eruptions in the region that long predated the arrival of our ancient ancestors on the scene. So geoscientist Sebastien Nomade gathered rock samples from three of the region’s volcanoes. By measuring the levels of radioactive isotopes of argon gas, which is released during volcanic eruptions, Nomade and his team discovered that the Bas-Viverais range had experienced several dramatic eruptions between 19,000 and 43,000 years ago. 

The area around the Chauvet cave was likely populated around this time and far enough away that any inhabitants would have been safe from the eruptions but still have a good view of the action, Callaway writes. “You just have to climb the small hill on top of Chauvet, and looking north you see the volcanoes. During the night you could see them glowing and you could hear the sound of the volcanic eruption,” Nomade tells Callaway.

Without being able to interview the artists themselves, researchers will never know for sure if the mysterious drawings were inspired by a nearby volcanic eruption. For now, though, it’s a promising idea, Oxford University archaeologist Michael Petraglia, who was not involved in the study, tells Callaway.

“I think they make a pretty good case that it’s potentially a depiction of the kind of volcano that one sees on the landscape,” Petraglia tells Callaway. “Maybe there’s more of this out there than we have realized.”

Bullet Helps Revive Lawrence of Arabia's Reputation

Smithsonian Magazine

Before World War I, Thomas Edward Lawrence was a post-grad archaeologist who worked for several years in Jordan, Iraq, Syria and other parts of the Ottoman Empire. He knew the landscape well, and even more, he was familiar with the railway lines. So when war broke out between Britain and the German-aligned Ottomans, the Brits tapped Lawrence for a special mission. He began working with Arab tribes who wished to overthrow Turkish rule in a guerilla war that forced the Ottomans to divert their attention from the front lines.

Lawrence’s string of military victories and ambushes through Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria was a stunning success, which led to his classic account of the insurgency in the book The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, which was later adapted as the Oscar-winning picture Lawrence of Arabia. Over time, however, Lawrence has been accused of embellishing the truth and inflating his role in the Arab Revolt. But a recent find in Saudi Arabia shows that Lawrence definitely took part in a battle made famous in the movie, the 1917 ambush on a train in Hallat Ammar.

According to a press release, researchers from the Great Arab Revolt Project recovered a bullet from a Colt automatic pistol, a weapon that historians know Lawrence used and one Arab tribesmen were unlikely to own. “We're almost 100 percent certain he was the only person in that battle who would have been using that gun,” Neil Faulkner, leader of the nine-year Great Arab Revolt Project, tells the MailOnline. “A lot of people have doubted what was written in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom memoir, but what this shows is that he is not a serial liar—he has provided us with a very reliable historical account.”

The bullet was found in the area that Lawrence indicates he was standing during the battle, and additional artifacts confirm his description of the position of a line of Arab rebels during the ambush.

The find comes on top of the rediscovery of a nameplate from one of the locomotives that Lawrence and the rebels stopped during the ambush. Lawrence reportedly gave the battle souvenir to a family friend in 1933, but it was lost to history for more than 80 years. It all adds up to a vindication of sorts for Lawrence.

“It is extraordinary,” says Nicholas Saunders, one of the researchers from the University of Bristol, “that after 100 years new discoveries like this are still being made, casting new light on a guerrilla war which helped reshape the Middle East after 1918–the consequences of which we are still living with today.”

Luce Unplugged: Pairing Art with Music

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Muralist Nicolas Party Samples Great Artists of the Past Like a Visual DJ

Smithsonian Magazine
The Hirshhorn's installation, inspired by Barack Obama’s “sun will rise” promise of continuity, highlights fantasy landscapes, beauty of nature
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