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The Story of the First Mass Murder in U.S. History

Smithsonian Magazine

On Labor Day, 1949, Howard Unruh decided to go to the movies. He left his Camden, New Jersey, apartment and headed to the Family Theatre in downtown Philadelphia. On the bill that night was a double feature, the double-crossing gangster movie I Cheated the Law and The Lady Gambles, in which Barbara Stanwyck plays a poker-and-dice-game addict. Unruh, however, wasn’t interested in the pictures. He was supposed to meet a man with whom he’d been having a weeks-long affair.

Unfortunately for Unruh, 28 years old at the time, traffic held him up and by the time he reached theater, a well-known gay pick up spot on Market St., his date was gone. Unruh sat in the dark until 2:20 a.m., bitterly stewing through multiple on-screen loops of the movies. At 3 a.m., he arrived home in New Jersey to find that the newly constructed fence at the rear end of his backyard—one he’d erected to quell an ongoing feud with the Cohens who lived next door and owned the drugstore below the apartment he shared with his mother—had been tampered with. The gate was missing.

It was the final straw. For a couple of years, Unruh had been contemplating killing several of his Cramer Hill neighbors over petty squabbles, perceived slights and name-calling, all which fed into his psychosis. Unruh thought the world was out to get him, so he decided to enact revenge on his little corner of it. He went into his apartment, uncased his German Luger P08, a 9mm pistol he’d purchased at a sporting goods store in Philadelphia for $37.50, and secured it with two clips and 33 loose cartridges. Unable to sleep, he made yet another mental list of his intended targets, a group of local shopkeepers one would find in a 1950s children’s book: the druggist, shoemaker, tailor and restaurant owner. Eventually, Unruh dozed off.

In a few hours, on the morning of Tuesday, September 6, Unruh would embark upon his “Walk of Death,” murdering 13 people and wounding three others in a 20-minute rampage before being hauled off by police after a dangerous firefight. A somewhat forgotten man outside of criminology circles and local old-timers, Unruh was an early chapter in the tragically-all-too-familiar American story of an angry man with a gun, inflicting carnage.


There have been killers since Cain murdered Abel, and Unruh certainly wasn’t the first American to take the lives of multiple victims. The FBI defines a “mass murder” as four or more victims in a single incident (usually in one spot). Serial killers and spree killers fall into their own category, and there’s also a new crowdsourced "mass shooting" tracking system that counts the number of people shot, as opposed to killed, but it’s not an official set of data. What is known is that the United States, with five percent of the world’s population, was home to nearly one-third of the world’s mass shooters from 1966-2012. Before that, mass gun murders like Unruh’s were too rare to be considered a threat.

“There have been notorious killers since America was founded, but you didn’t have the mass shooting phenomenon before Unruh’s time because people didn’t have access to semi-automatic weaponry,” says Harold Schechter, a true crime novelist who has written about infamous murderers going back to the 19th-century.

While the terminology is a bit fungible, Unruh is generally regarded as the first of the “lone wolf” type of modern mass murderers, the template for the school and workplace shooters who have dominated the coverage of the more than 1,000 victims since 2013. Unruh was a distinctive personality type, one that has also come to define those who have followed in his bloody footsteps.

“Unruh really matches the mass murder profile. He had a rigid temperament, an inability to accept frustration or people not treating him as well as he wanted, and a feeling of isolation, all things people accept and move on from,” says Katherine Ramsland, a professor of forensic psychology and the director of the master of arts in criminal justice at DeSales University, as well as the author of some 60 nonfiction books including Inside the Mind of Mass Murderers: Why They Kill. “He had a free-floating anger, held grudges, owned weapons he knew how to use, and decided somebody was going to pay. It’s a typical recipe for internal combustion.”

Unruh learned how to use weaponry in World War II, serving in the 342nd Armored Field Artillery and taking part in the relief of Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge. He occasionally served as a tank gunner and received commendations, although he never rose above the rank of private first class. His commanders said he followed orders well. However, while in combat, he kept meticulous notes of every German he killed. He would mark down the day, hour, and place, and when circumstances allowed, describe the corpses in disturbing bloody detail. After the killings, Unruh’s younger brother, Jim, would tell reporters that he wasn’t the same after the service and that he “never acted like his old self,” but Howard was honorably discharged with no record of mental illness.

Image by AP Photo/PX. Prosecuting attorney Mitchell Cohen questions Unruh in the hospital. Unruh suffered a bullet wound to the hip while barricaded in his apartment. (original image)

Image by AP Photo. Cohen points to a drawing of the neighborhood where Unruh killed 13 passersby. Looking on are Camden city detectives and eye witnesses to the shootings. (original image)

Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS. Unruh sits with hands shackled in Camden City Hall after questioning by detectives. (original image)

Image by Patrick Sauer. Unruh lived on this corner in Camden, New Jersey. (original image)

Back in Camden, Unruh decorated his apartment with war collectibles. His peeling walls were adorned with pistols and bayonets, while machetes and ashtrays crafted out of German shells laid about the room. In the basement, he set up a target range and practiced shooting, even though a low ceiling meant he could only fire from a kneeling or lying position. One gun he shot was a prized Nazi Luger he brought back as a souvenir.

Prior to joining the army in 1942, Unruh had lived a normal, if unremarkable, life. He was born on January 20, 1921 to Sam and Freda (sometimes referred to as Rita) Unruh. They separated when Howard was a boy. He and Jim were raised in Camden by their mother, who worked as a packer at the Evanston Soap Company. The October 1949 psychiatric report that formally declared Unruh insane, noted that Unruh had a “rather prolonged period of toilet training” and “did not walk or talk until 16 months old,” but otherwise he was basically an average unassuming kid. He was pious, regularly read the Bible and attended services at St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. Howard was shy, kept to himself for the most part, consumed with his two favorite hobbies, stamp collecting and building model trains. He wasn’t a drinker or a smoker, even as an adult. The yearbook from Woodrow Wilson High noted his ambition was to work for the government and fellow students called him “How.”

Between high school and World War II, Unruh worked a series of blue-collar jobs, which he picked up for a spell after returning from Europe. He worked for a printing outfit, the Acorn Company, and then operated a metal stamping press at Budd Manufacturing, but neither job lasted a year. His one stab at a career came when he enrolled in pharmacy school at Temple University, but he dropped out after a few months. By December of 1948, he was unemployed and living full-time with his mother back in Cramer Hill. He ventured out in his neighborhood, but didn’t have any friends he called upon. A psychiatrist would later write, “After WWII, after [Unruh] returned home, he did not work nor did he any life goals or directions, had difficulty adjusting or solving problems and was, ‘angry at the world.’”

Unruh’s rage festered. In his mind, everyday ordinary happenings became acts of aggression that demanded retribution. And so, he began to keep thorough lists of his grievances and slights, both real and imagined. In the 1949 commitment report, Unruh claimed Mr. Cohen short-changed him five times while Mrs. Cohen told him to turn down his music—the dulcet sounds  of Brahms and Wagner—even though their son Charles was free to aggravate him with his trumpet. Other neighbors on Unruh’s list included: The man and woman who lived below him and threw trash on his back lot, the barber who put dirt in a vacant yard that backed up the drainage and flooded his cellar, the shoemaker who buried trash close to his property, and a mystery boy named “Sorg,” who tapped his electricity to light up the Christmas trees he was selling on the street.

Unruh’s paranoia about what was being said of him around Cramer Hill fueled his persecution complex, he was certain everyone was insulting him. He felt that a number of people knew he was a homosexual and were talking about it, said Mr. Cohen called him a “queer,” said the tailor (and son) was spreading a story that “he saw me go down on somebody in an alley one time,” and was fearful local teenagers who frequently harassed him had seen him at the Family Theatre.

Unruh was a gay man; he was up front with the psychiatrists who interviewed him following the massacre. From 1944-46, he’d had a girlfriend, seemingly the only one of his life, but broke it off after telling her he was “schizo” and would never marry her. He told the psychiatrists that she meant nothing to him and that they’d never had sex. Following their break-up, he’d been with a lot of men and said he’d once contracted gonorrhea. After dropping out of Temple in 1948, he kept his room in a Philadelphia lodging house for nearly a year saying that “his interest in religion declined when his sexual relations with male friends increased.” Ann Mitchell, an African-American maid who cleaned the rooms, told detectives investigating the massacre that she’d seen him going to and from his room with other men at all times of the day and added he would write “nigger” in the dust on the writing desk after returning from weekends in Camden. The report noted, “As {Mitchell} disliked him, she paid little attention to him and she never suspected him of anything.” Unruh paid his $30 a month on time from September 28, 1948, until August 28, 1949, and then never returned.

The sad irony is that the one aspect of Unruh that people did “suspect,” being a homosexual, was accurate, but he couldn’t live as an open gay man in an era when it wasn’t just societally unacceptable, it was illegal. What most Cramer Hill people didn’t suspect, even while finding him rather strange, was that he was a powder keg. In Seymour Shubin’s article, “Camden’s One-Man Massacre,” which took up the entirety of the December 1949 issue of Tragedy-of-the-Month, tailor Tom Zegrino described a pre-shooting Unruh as “awfully polite. The kind of guy who wouldn’t hurt a flea.” His wife of less than a month Helga, who would be one of Unruh’s last victims added, “I think he’s a nice fellow. He seems devoted to his mother, too. That’s something I like.”


Sometime around 8 a.m. on September 6, just hours after returning from Philadelphia, Unruh was awakened by his mother, who prepared him a breakfast of fried eggs and milk. After eating, Unruh went into the basement and retrieved a wrench, which he raised over her in a threatening manner. “What do you want to do that for, Howard?,” she asked him. Freda would later say her son appeared to be transfixed. She repeated her question over and over before running out of the house to a neighbor, fearing her son had reached the tipping point. (A short while later, after hearing gunfire and putting it all together, Freda fainted.)

Unruh immediately collected his Luger and ammo, a six-inch knife, and a tear gas pen with six shells, and cut through the backyard to the 3200 block of River Road. Dressed in a brown tropical-worsted suit, white shirt, striped bow tie, and Army boots, the lanky 6-foot, 164-pound Unruh shot at a bread deliveryman in his truck, but missed. He then walked into the shoemaker’s store and, without saying a word, shot John Pilarchik, the 27-year-old cobbler who was on his list, in the chest. Pilarchik fell to the floor. Still alive, Unruh fired another round into Pilarchik’s head. A young boy crouched in fear behind the counter.

Unruh walked back out to the street and entered the barbershop next door. Clark Hoover, 33, was cutting the hair of Orris Smith, 6, who sat atop a white carousel-style horse as his mother, Catherine, looked on. The barber tried to protect the child, but Unruh killed the boy with a bullet to the head. A second shot ended Hoover’s life. Unruh ignored Catherine, 42, who carried Orris into the street screaming until a neighbor threw them both in the car and sped away to the hospital. The next day, the horrific scene was described by Camden Courier-Post columnist Charley Humes:

“…People were peering through a big plate glass window, looking at a ‘hobby horse’ in a barber shop that is closed.”

At the base of the standard which held the wooden horse in place was another blotch of blood…the blood of another little boy ‘just past six’ who was having his hair cut in preparation for his first trip to school the next day…”

Back on River Road, Unruh shot at a boy in a window, but missed. He then fired into a tavern across the street owned by Frank Engel. In a 1974 Courier-Post retrospective, Engel said Unruh had never come inside the bar, but that he’d seen him “walk down the street, walking straight like he had a poker in his back and the kids on the corner would make some remarks about him.” Nobody was hit as Engel ran upstairs and grabbed his .38 caliber Luger. Meanwhile, Unruh reloaded and headed into the drugstore to confront his primary targets, the Cohens.

An insurance man, James Hutton, 45, was coming out of the drugstore to see what the commotion was all about. He came face-to-face with Unruh, but didn’t move quickly enough when the killer said excuse me. Realizing his time free of police was growing short, Unruh shot Hutton, saying, “I fired on him once, then stepped over him and went into the store.” He saw Maurice, 40, and his wife Rose, 38, running up the stairs into their apartment. Rose hid in a closet (and put son Charles, 12, in a separate one), but Unruh shot three times through the door before opening it and firing once more into her face. Walking across the apartment, he spotted Maurice’s mother Minnie, 63, trying to call the cops, and shot her multiple times. He followed Maurice onto a porch roof and shot him in the back, sending him to the pavement below.

Maurice Cohen was dead on the sidewalk, but Unruh continued his rampage. Back out on River Road, he killed four motorists who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. He leaned into a car driven by Alvin Day, 24, a television repairman and World War II vet who slowed down at the corner where Hutton’s body lay, and fired. Following Day’s murder, accounts vary, but most likely Unruh next walked out into the street to a car stopped at a red light and fired into the windshield. He instantly killed the driver Helen Wilson, 37, and her mother Emma Matlack, 68, and wounded Helen’s son, John Wilson, 9, with a bullet through the neck. He returned to the same side of the street with the goal of claiming his final two victims.

Unruh entered the tailor shop, looking for Tom Zegrino, but only found Helga, 28. She was on her knees begging for her life when Unruh shot her at close range. Next door, Thomas Hamilton, less than two weeks shy of his third birthday, was playing with the curtain near his playpen and looked out the window. Unruh said he mistook the moving shadows for one of the people he believed was dumping trash in his yard and shot through the window, striking Hamilton with a bullet to the head.

On his final stop after darting back into the alleyway, Unruh broke into a home behind his apartment lot and wounded a mother and son, Madeline Harrie, 36, and Armand, 16, before running out of ammo and retreating to his apartment. By now, sirens were wailing.

In 20 minutes, Howard Unruh had killed 12 and severely wounded four. (The toll would rise to thirteen; John Wilson, the 9-year-old car passenger, later died at the hospital.)  His Cramer Hill neighborhood was rattled, to the point where a detective on the scene would say, years later, that the mailman dropped his full bag on the sidewalk, quit his job, and never came back.

Unruh returned to his apartment as a crowd of authorities and neighborhood civilians gathered. In 1949, mass shootings were basically unheard of, so there was no official police protocol. As neighbors milled about, more than 50 officers surrounded the two-story stucco building, and began blasting away at the apartment with machine guns, shotguns, and pistols, even though some in the crowd, estimated to be a thousand people, were in the line of fire.

(How haphazard was police work back then? The magazine Weird N.J. discovered what became of Unruh’s Luger. Detective Ron Conley, following typical 1940s procedure, secured it in his locker. Upon retiring, he brought it home. It was recovered in the early 90s, returned to the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office, and marked as evidence.)

During the onslaught, Philip W. Buxton, an enterprising assistant city editor at The Camden Evening Courier, looked up Unruh’s number in the phone book, rang it up, and to his surprise, had the shooter on the line. Buxton chatted with Unruh for a few minutes as the bullets poured into the apartment, shattering window panes.  He asked how many people he’d killed, to which Unruh replied, “I don't know yet, I haven't counted them. But it looks like a pretty good score.” Buxton followed-up asking why he was killing people. Unruh said he didn’t know, but he had to go because “a couple of friends are coming to get me.”

In the chaos, a couple of policemen climbed onto the roof—the same one Maurice Cohen plunged from—and lobbed a tear gas canister into Unruh’s apartment. The first was a dud, but the second was stingingly effective. Five minutes later Unruh called out that he was surrendering. He shouted he was leaving his gun on a desk and walked out the back door with his hands held high. He was patted down and cuffed as gawkers screamed for the mass murderer to be lynched right then and there. One furious cop demand to know, “What’s the matter with you? You a psycho?”

Unruh flatly replied, “I am no psycho. I have a good mind.”


For the next couple of hours, Unruh would be grilled in a Camden detective’s office.

He took full responsibility for the killings and supplied details in a detached clinical manner. During the interrogation, District Attorney Mitchell Cohen (no relation to the druggist) noticed a pool of blood under Unruh’s chair. At one point late in the rampage, Unruh was shot in the buttock or upper leg by Frank Engel, who had taken aim from his upstairs window. Unruh was rushed to Cooper Hospital, the same one as his victims, but surgeons were unable to remove the bullet. Less than 24 hours after his arrest, he was transferred to the Vroom Building for the criminally insane at Trenton Psychiatric Hospital, voluntarily. He would remain on the grounds for the next 60 years as Case No. 47,077. Unruh would never stand trial for the “Walk of Death.”

Starting on September 7, a team of psychiatrists examined Unruh for weeks, trying to get an understanding of why he did what he did. Many of their findings weren’t released until 2012, at the request of the Philadelphia Inquirer. He cold-bloodedly explained everything, listing the neighbors who had wronged him, and describing each murder with little emotion. He claimed to feel sorrow for the children he’d killed, but the doctor’s notes indicate he didn’t seem remorseful. Unruh went so far as to say that “murder is sin, and I should get the chair.”

The full accuracy of Unruh’s statements is unknowable because on more than occasion, psychiatrists administered truth serum, a.k.a. narcosynthesis, which was then considered useful. Scientists discredited it in the 1950s because patients often melded fact and fantasy together. (In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled truth serum confessions unconstitutional in Townsend v. Sain.) It’s impossible to know the veracity of the reports from Unruh’s sessions, such as the one where he told a doctor that he’d been in bed with Freda, fondled his mother’s breasts, and that “their privates touched.” However, a psychiatrist notes in a “Personal History” summation that Unruh’s brother James said “once the patient had made advances to him when they were sleeping together, which he, James, had vigorously resisted.”

On Oct. 20, 1949, a Camden County judge signed a final order of commitment based on a diagnosis of “dementia praecox, mixed type, with pronounced catatonic and paranoid coloring.” In standard parlance, he was declared a paranoid schizophrenic. Unruh was considered too mentally ill to stand trial, although the murder indictment remained if ever he were “cured.” (So the missing Luger could have been vital evidence in a trial.) Ramsland believes Unruh’s initial diagnosis was wrong, and that today, he would have been found legally sane.

“He wouldn’t have been diagnosed with schizophrenia because he didn’t have any actual symptoms of schizophrenia, they just didn’t know what else to do in those days,” she says. “Back then, paranoid schizophrenia was kind of a trash-can diagnosis. You could put anything in there, but the criteria have tightened up since. Unruh didn’t have command hallucinations or anything like that. The standard is, are you so floridly psychotic that you don’t know what you’re doing is wrong? You can be psychotic and still get convicted. I suspect Unruh had a personality disorder, but it’s clear he knew what he was doing was wrong and that there were legal consequences. I always found it so odd that they just locked him away and forgot about him.  Thirteen people were killed, are you kidding?”

Unruh’s father Sam was ordered to pay $15 a month for Howard’s upkeep in Trenton. And basically, for the next six decades, Unruh vanished. Occasionally, something would come up like in 1964, Unruh wrote a petition to have his indictment dismissed on the grounds he was insane at the time of the shootings. He withdrew it, probably upon understanding that it would only be useful as a defense in a trial, which he did not want. Freda visited him until her death in 1985, but after that, Unruh didn’t talk much. Over the years, he did take an art class, and in the 1970s had an unrequited crush on a much younger inmate, but for the most part, he kept up with his stamp collection and was known to mop the floors while muttering to himself.

In 1991, a psychiatrist said Unruh had one friendship inside, but actually it was “a person who just keeps talking all the time. Mr Unruh is a good listener.” In 1993, Unruh was transferred to a less restrictive geriatric unit, where he would live out his days. He died on October 19, 2009 at the age of 88.


Technically, Unruh wasn’t the first mass shooter. There had been at least two, including one less that a year before in nearby Chester, Pennsylvania. Melvin Collins, 30, opened fire from a boardinghouse, killing eight before taking his own life, but his story was quickly forgotten. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page. Part of the reason Unruh is known as the “father of mass murderer” is that he didn’t follow the typical script. He, somewhat miraculously considering the firepower aimed his way, lived.

“Mass murder is typically a suicidal act in which apocalyptic violence is used to enact extreme vengeance, and it almost always ends in the perpetrator’s death,” says Schechter. “Unruh was the rare exception and he became the public face of a serious horrifying crime.”

Unruh didn’t lack for publicity. It was covered extensively by local newspapers and his homicidal terror was brilliantly re-created by famed New York Times writer Meyer Berger who left Manhattan at 11 a.m., interviewed at least 20 people in Camden by himself, and filed 4,000 words an hour before deadline. For his masterwork, Berger won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting. (He sent the $1,000 prize money to Freda Unruh.) The piece remains a staple of journalism scholarship today.

Unruh’s “Walk of Death” is certainly infamous and well known in criminology circles, so it’s a bit curious that he’s fallen off the radar as a public figure. There were periodic articles published about Unruh throughout his long life, especially when Charles Cohen, the boy who hid in the closet, came out publicly after 32 years to denounce the prisoner’s request to be moved to a less-restrictive setting. In 1999, Cohen, 62, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he was haunted by the morning, that other mass killings like Columbine brought back the pain, and that he was waiting for the call that Unruh had died. “I’ll make my final statement, spit on his grave, and go on with my life,” he said. Cohen passed away one month before Unruh.

Unruh’s massacre was a watershed crime, but it’s been usurped by other deadlier shooters of the television and internet age. A Google news search of “Howard Unruh” and “Umpqua” turned up no results, while an October 4 New York Times article about profiling mass killers said, “The episode…that some academics view as having ‘introduced the nation to the idea of mass murder in a public space’ happened in 1966, when Charles Whitman climbed a tower at the University of Texas at Austin and killed 16 people.”

Schechter says another reason Unruh isn’t as renowned is because the “Walk of Death” was seen as a stand-alone atrocity of a “crazy.” Mass murder wasn’t a regular occurrence and Unruh didn’t spark copycats—Whitman was years later—so it didn’t tap into common fears of the post-World War II generation. “Unruh’s killings were seen as a weird aberration and not something the culture was obsessed by, so he didn’t immediately enter into a larger American mythology,” says Schechter.


One place where Unruh hasn’t been forgotten is the Cramer Hill neighborhood where he destroyed so many lives. River Road is still working-class, dotted with Mexican shops these days, but the layout is generally the same. The barbershop was torn down, but the buildings that housed the tailor, cobbler, and drugstore are all intact. The block looks the same. There are no plaques, memorials, or markers of any kind. 

In late September, a 76-year-old Vietnam War veteran working as a school crossing guard on River Road, told me that when he moved to East Camden in 1977, many people who lived through that awful day were still around. He said even now, neighbors knows the legend of the “Walk of Death.” He pointed to Unruh’s apartment, which has reportedly remained empty since he was arrested. The outer wall of the apartment building was re-stuccoed and painted gray at some point, but plenty of indentations remain, presumably from the hailstorm of bullets. The crossing guard took me into Unruh’s backyard, the rear entrances boarded shut with cheap padlocks. By all appearances, the residential part of the building was shuttered and abandoned after Unruh killed 13 people in Cramer Hill. The back lot was overgrown with weeds and tall grass, but someone beautified it a bit by planting tomatoes and corn. The ears were growing on the other side of a chain-link fence.

The gate, however, was missing. 

Agricultural Pollution Is Threatening America’s National Parks

Smithsonian Magazine

National parks are supposed to be protected tracts of American wilderness, as it existed before we cut down, farmed and paved over the bulk of it. But, according to new research, airborne agricultural byproducts are threatening the parks’ health and purity.

Scientists have long measured the impact of waterborne pollution from farms—agricultural runoff that, for instance, dumps nutrients into the ocean, feeding algae blooms that make it impossible for other animals to thrive. But heavy use of manures and fertilizers also vents gases, such as nitrogen oxides and ammonia. Normally these chemicals would help plants to grow, but if their concentrations are too high they can harm the plants, says the Los Angeles Times. And that’s what’s happening in the parks:

Thirty-eight of 45 national parks examined by scientists are receiving doses of nitrogen at or above a critical threshold that can harm sensitive ecosystems, such as lichens, hardwood forests or tallgrass prairie, scientists found.

“Changes to lichen communities may signal the beginning of other ecosystem changes that can eventually alter the function and structure of the community as a whole,” the study says.

There have been pollution problems in national parks for a long time, wrote Smithsonian Magazine in 2005, explaining how haze overtook Big Bend National Park in the 1980s. And heavy agricultural areas like California’s San Joaquin Valley, with lots of truck traffic and other equipment, on top of the fertilizer and other emissions, are big polluters, wrote Smithsonian‘s Surprising Science blog.

In this case, says the Times, the problem is probably only going to get worse.

While nitrogen oxide emissions from automobiles and power plants are on track to decline by as much as 75% by 2050, the study projected, ammonia from agriculture could rise by up to 50% as the U.S. population grows, requires more food and uses more fertilizer and livestock.

”Right now there is no effort to control ammonia emissions in this country, no regulations of any kind,” Jacob said. “If we’re going to protect our national parks from the harmful effects of nitrogen deposition we’re going to have to do something about it.”

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How Machines Are Getting Better at Making Conversation

Smithsonian Magazine

Remember back when just about everything in the digital world revolved around "search," when a high Google ranking was the Holy Grail.

Then there was that stretch when every company felt it needed to have its own mobile app. That was the key to keeping up with the mass migration to smartphones.

But it’s time to move on, say the seers of Silicon Valley, to a new phase, one that, believe it or not, is built around conversation.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said as much a few weeks ago at the big developers’ conference known as Microsoft Build, describing conversation as the next digital “platform.” He went so far as to suggest that chatbots—software that allows you to communicate directly with devices, when making a purchase, for instance—will have the same kind of profound impact as did browsers that first enabled us to search the Web and Apple’s use of the touchscreen on phones.

More recently, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg weighed in, announcing that chatbots will become a key feature of Facebook Messenger. They not only will be able to understand what a person is saying—either through voice recognition or comprehending a typed sentence—but will also learn enough about your preferences from past conversations that they’ll have the ability to take actions on their own, such as sending flowers or ordering dinner.   

The thinking is that instead of searching the Web to get information, we will increasingly rely on bots to do it for us, whether it’s through conversational digital assistants like Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana, or through more specialized software, such as a restaurant bot that uses artificial intelligence to get to know a person's tastes and habits so well it can anticipate any needs.

Getting to know you

It’s too soon to predict how all this will shake out, but Microsoft’s Nadella shared a vision of people interacting regularly with their digital assistants, which could, in turn, connect them with “worker bots” that actually handle tasks like booking flights or scheduling meetings. And Amazon has just unveiled software that will allow us to communicate with thermostats, light switches and other devices through its digital assistant, Alexa.

That suggests a different kind of relationship with our machines, one that’s more personal and engaging. Not that digital assistants will necessarily become our virtual sidekicks, but if we grow to like and trust them—and forgive their mistakes—we’re much more likely to make them part of our daily lives.

So, there’s more effort going into making them feel a part of our world, that they’re even plugged into pop culture. In line with the start of the new season of “Game of Thrones,” Siri was programmed with a bunch of snappy responses that showed off her knowledge of the show. And, after a commercial featuring Cookie Monster interacting with Siri got more than 10 million views on YouTube, Apple followed up with a silly behind-the-scenes version earlier this month.

Shaping a personality

For its part, Microsoft’s Cortana has a nice singing voice (I’ve heard “her” do abbreviated versions of “Danny Boy” and “Auld Lang Syne” when asked to sing a song) and gracious responses to personal questions (When asked her age, it replied, “By your calendar, I’m still in infancy. In bot years, I’m quite mature.”).

As it turns out, Cortana has a small team—including a poet, a novelist and a playwright—putting words in her mouth, according to a recent report by Elizabeth Dwoskin in the Washington Post.  Their job is to not just make her sound more human, but also to add layers to her personality. As the writers shape her as a character, they wrestle with how she should respond to different types of questions. How solicitous should she be? How coy? How knowledgeable does she need to be about current events? When should she express an opinion? 

Then there’s another consideration. Just as having Cortana sound too robotic could keep people from connecting with her, making her seem too human can feel creepy. The dip in empathy a person can feel if a robot seems too real is what’s become known in robotics as the “uncanny valley.” It’s thought that a little quirkiness, even a flaw, in a digital assistant isn’t a bad thing. It can make it seem less threatening and more endearing.

But Microsoft also knows the risks of inviting humans into a bot’s learning process. Late last month, it unveiled on Twitter and a few other chat apps a conversational bot named Tay. It was an experiment to see what the audience could teach it. It didn’t go well. In a matter of hours, Tay had learned to be outrageously inappropriate, spewing racist comments and suggesting at one point that the Holocaust never happened. Microsoft issued a quick apology and Tay went away.

Life guides?

In some ways, Google has the most to lose from the bot boom. As it becomes easier for bots to retrieve information, answer questions and perform tasks, why would we even do Google searches? Google, of course, know this, so it’s betting big on its own digital assistant, Google Now

By combining voice search with the massive amount of user data it has collected over the years, Google hopes to develop the ultimate virtual valet, one that knows so much about you that it can be several steps ahead in addressing your needs. The search company's goal is to make the leap, through Google Now, from purveyor of instant information to trusted life guide. 

Google's bot ideally will be able to let you know, based on real-time data, when you need to leave for work, or clue you into cool things you can do with your kids over the weekend, or suggest vacation options based on places you’ve enjoyed in the past. As Amit Singhal, Google’s senior vice president of search products, put it during a recent interview with Time, “I want Google Now to help me not only just do the next thing. I want it to enable a better experience in this beautiful journey that we call life.”

Singhal also pointed out that Google, at least for now, is not expending a lot of energy in giving Google Now a winning personality. He contends that teaching it to tell jokes would suggest that these bots are more sophisticated than they actually are at this point. Better, he says, to concentrate on refining its mining of vast amounts of data to allow Google Now to learn how to form the kind of connections that make human speech understandable.

That’s the real tipping point for bots. Software is much more effective now at recognizing human words than even a few years ago, with an accuracy rate of more than 90 percent, according to most estimates. But truly understanding what those words mean in context remains a hurdle.

At the same time, we tend to raise our expectations. Real conversation moves the interaction well beyond typing a question into a search box. When speaking with a chatbot, we're more likely to feel like we’re speaking to another person, to be more open-ended and talk in multiple sentences spiced with double meanings and colloquialisms. All of which makes it that much harder for bots to figure out just what it is we want.

Still, bots are increasingly viewed as a natural extension of how we already communicate and use our mobile phones. And, they’re being seen as the way we’ll talk to our cars, our TVs and all our other appliances. 

Clearly, digital assistants and bots still have a way to go before they can interpret everything we say with precision and express themselves in language that sounds natural. But it seems only a matter of time before they’re less novelty and more companion. 

Some very big companies are banking on it.  

The Statues of Easter Island

Smithsonian Magazine

About 2,000 miles off the coast of South America sits the Chile-governed Easter Island. Just 14 miles long and 7 miles wide, it was named by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen, who discovered it on Easter Sunday in 1722. Archaeologists and historians have debated the island's history, but it is believed that Polynesians landed on the island around A.D. 800 and depleted its resources until it was practically barren.

What they left behind, however, remains one of the most captivating riddles of engineering: nearly 1,000 monolithic statues. The massive effigies, on average 13 feet tall and weighing 14 tons, are thought to represent ancestral chiefs raised to the level of gods. According to archaeologist Jo Anne Van Tilburg—who is the founder of UCLA's Easter Island Statue Project and has studied the artifacts for nearly 30 years—about 95 percent of the statues were carved in the volcanic cone known as Rano Raraku. Master carvers, who taught their craft over generations, roughed out the statues using stone tools called toki and employed sharp obsidian tools to make finer lines.

The real mystery—how a small and isolated population managed to transport the megalithic structures to various ceremonial sites—has spawned decades of research and experiments. "It is amazing that an island society made of 10 to 12 chiefdoms had sufficient unity and ability to communicate carving standards, organize carving methods and achieve political rights of way transport statues to every part of the island," Van Tilburg says.

Every Year Spring Gets 30 Seconds Shorter

Smithsonian Magazine

Today, spring has sprung: At 6:45 pm EDT, the Earth’s titled axis will point neither away from the Sun nor toward, marking the vernal equinox and the official start of spring for the Northern Hemisphere. This year we have exactly 92.76 days of spring to enjoy before summer arrives, reports Laura Geggel for And good news for the lovers of summer — it comes about 30 seconds earlier than it did last year.

That extra half-a-minute we get for summer sun (or thunderstorms) means we have that much less time to enjoy spring’s blooms. Spring has been getting shorter every year for thousands of years, thanks to a wobble in the Earth’s axis. The wobble, called precession, means that Earth arrives the point in its orbit where the Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the Sun the most — the summer solstice — a bit earlier every year. 

At the same time, the Earth is orbiting around the Sun in an ellipse. This slightly squashed circle shape means that our planet moves faster when it’s closer to the Sun and slower when we are farther. That speed change makes winter go quickly and summer go slower. (Sorry, residents of the Southern Hemisphere — for you that means that winter is slower and summer is faster.) That’s why summer steals its seconds from spring. Also, fall is getting longer as winter gets shorter.

The interaction between the Earth’s wobble and its varying orbital speed means that spring won’t get shorter forever. Geggel spoke to amateur astronomer Larry Gerstman to help explain:

Over thousands of years, the shift in the time of the vernal equinox becomes more apparent. For instance, spring will be shortest in about the year 8680, measuring about 88.5 days, or about four days shorter than this year's spring, Gerstman said. (After that point, spring will lengthen again.)

Don’t worry much about the change, unless you are an astronomer. The average person living day-to-day won’t notice that spring is getting shorter. They are far more likely to notice earlier blooms and warmer days sooner in the season thanks to climate change. 

'The Stars and Sun Are Everywhere’: 50 Years of Spacewalks

Smithsonian Magazine

Fifty years ago today, Russian Cosmonaut Alexey Leonov did something no human had ever done before. He jumped out of a spacecraft and into space. "The silence struck me," he recalls, according to "I could hear my heart beating so clearly. I could hear my breath — it even hurt to think."

He says that his heavy breaths were recorded and broadcast back to Earth, later to be used in 2001: A Space Odyssey. In this video of the first spacewalk, a narrator and music hide the silence, but Leonov bobs and floats at the end of his umbilical-cord-like tether. He drifts in front of the blue Earth and across the inky blackness of space. His historical walk lasted 12 minutes.

Less than three months later, on June 3, 1965, the Americans would catch up, and Edward White would be the second human to walk in space. The early efforts especially were challenging: space suits were awkward to maneuver, and the first walkers had difficulty getting back into the spacecraft. Leonov had to bleed some of the oxygen out of his suit to fit back in the airlock, pulled himself in head first instead of feet first and apparently lost six kilos, much of it in sweat, reports the Guardian

White spent 23 minutes maneuvering to the end of his tether and back three times. At first he could use a hand-held gun designed to propel him, but after just three minutes the fuel on that device ran out, NASA writes. He had to twist his body and pull on the tether to get back. The efforts were exhausting but when asked to come back, White had the following exchange with Gemini 4 commander James McDivitt, reports Time:

McDIVITT: They want you to get back in now.

WHITE (laughing): I’m not coming in . . . This is fun.

McDIVITT: Come on.

WHITE: Hate to come back to you, but I’m coming.

McDIVITT: OK, come in then.

WHITE: Aren’t you going to hold my hand?

McDIVITT: Ed, come on in here … Come on. Let’s get back in here before it gets dark.

WHITE: I’m coming back in . . . and it’s the saddest moment of my life.

The photos of humans in spacesuits floating, tethered and free, that we’ve gathered over the last half century give some small hint as to what these explorers have experienced.

Image by Gemini4 Mission/NASA. Edward White during the first U.S. spacewalk. He was attached to Gemini 4 with a 25-foot tether (original image)

Image by NASA. Astronaut Alfred M. Worden during the first deep space extravehicular activity (EVA, the technical name for spacewalk). Worden retrieved film cassesttes from two cameras while 171,000 nautical miles from Earth, returning from the Moon (original image)

Image by NASA. Astronauts Story Musgrave, left, and Don Peterson float in the cargo bay of the Earth-orbiting space shuttle Challenger during their April 7, 1983, spacewalk on the STS-6 mission. (original image)

Image by STS-41B/NASA. Astronaut Bruce McCandless II floats farther away from the space shuttle Challenger than anyone had ever been before during the first untethered spacewalk in 1984. He used the Manned Maneuvering Unit. (original image)

Image by NASA. Astronaut Stephen K. Robinson, STS-114 mission specialist, anchored to a foot restraint on the International Space Station’s Canadarm 2, participates in the mission’s third spacewalk, in 2005. (original image)

Image by STS-116 Shuttle Crew/NASA. Later spacewalks were routine. Here astronauts Robert L. Curbeam (USA) and Christer Fuglesang (Sweden) work on building the International Space Station (original image)

Image by NASA. Some of the challenges faced during space walks -- stiff suits -- can be anticipated by training underwater, NASA quickly learned. Here Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata and NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio train at NASA's Johnson Space Flight Center (original image)

Image by NASA. Spacewalks continue to this day. Astronaut Alexander Gerst takes a selfie during an October 7, 2014 spacewalk (original image)

Of course, not all spacewalks were a dream. Many were dangerous. The third ever spacewalk lasted 2 hours and 7 minutes for Eugene Cernan of Gemini 9A. His visor fogged over completely, his pulse raced and he had trouble getting back in the spacecraft. He called it the "spacewalk from hell," BBC reports.

Yet the men and women continued to step out of the relative safety of spacecraft to make vital repairs, launch and activate the satellites and instruments we use to study space. And each and every time they get an amazing view. Leonov remembers, "While from inside the spacecraft cosmonauts could see only a small fraction of the scenery, outside the stars and the sun are everywhere… I did not expect all this."

Nearly Two Million Years of Innovation, As Told Through Tools

Smithsonian Magazine

Tools can be simple or complex, but at their core, they're meant to be a solution to a particular problem. A knotted ball of Indian hemp, for instance, might seem completely different from a mechanical clock, but each represents one culture's attempt to keep track of time. From knotted time balls to modern iPhones, 175 tools tell the story of human ingenuity and innovation spanning nearly two million years in the Cooper Hewitt exhibit Tools: Extending Our Reach, on display through May 25, 2015. The exhibit is part of ten inaugural exhibits and installations that mark the museum's reopening December 12 after three years of renovation. 

"The tools celebrate the ingenuity of the human spirit across time and culture," says Matilda McQuaid, the museum's deputy curatorial director. "Materials may vary, but they're using the skills and materials of their time, whether it's using the gut skin from beluga whales to create an absolutely windproof and waterproof parka, or technology of our contemporary time to look at the Sun, millions of miles away, to understand how what happens on the surface of the Sun reflects what is happening to us here on Earth.  It's about how we push ourselves, as humans, regardless of where we are and what period we're from."

Selecting 175 tools to represent the evolution of human design was no easy task, but McQuaid and Cara McCarty, Cooper Hewitt's curatorial director, enlisted help from the nine of the Smithsonian Institution's museums and research centers in selecting which tools to highlight. They set up meetings with Smithsonian colleagues, asking each what their favorite tool was from their collection. The answers they received were, at times, unexpected, but helped shape the vision of the exhibition itself. At the National Postal Museum, for instance, McQuaid had her eye on a conveyor belt, because it revolutionized the ability for post offices to accurately sort huge quantites of mail. But instead, Postal Museum curator Nancy Pope recommended a postage stamp and intelligent barcodes—tools of transactions. Stamps revolutionized mail, Pope explained, by allowing people to prepay for postage, making mail quicker and easier to deliver. And the more recent use of intelligent barcodes allows each letter or package to have a unique code, which helps post offices better track and sort the mail.

After several such meetings, McQuaid and McCarty began to see common threads forming between the tools—threads that they used to create the exhibit's seven subcategories: Work, Communicate, Survive, Measure, Make, Observe and Toolboxes. "We weren't interested in showing an evolution," McCarty says. "It was important that we not just talk about the chronology of tools, but we mix culture and time periods, always focusing on the purpose."

Though the items in the exhibit might seem like unique entities, McQuaid and McCarty were most interested in showing connections between one tool and the next. The iPhone and Paleolithic hand ax might seem completely different and used by different cultures and separated by thousands of years, yet both are designed to be multipurpose, small, portable tools. "We sometimes think that someone has a brand new idea that no one has ever had before, but so much of what we do is about connections, about our experiences and about references to other cultures and time periods," McCarty says.

After three years of renovations, Smithsonian's Cooper Hewitt Museum—the nation's only museum dedicated exclusively to design both historic and contemporary—has reopened to the public. Located in New York City's Carnegie Mansion, the renovated museum boasts 60 percent more exhibition space and features new, interactive technology that allows visitors to explore the museum's collections both physically and digitally. To celebrate the reopening, the museum is launching ten inaugural exhibits and installations, which collectively span 30 centuries and feature more than 700 objects.

Designed for Fun

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
Image features red and black interlocking figures creating an all over pattern. Distinct figures include two that are upside down at lower left and right on either side of "83". Enclosed by a red border. Please scroll down to read the blog post about this object.In celebration of World Pride, June Object of the Day posts highlight LGBTQ+ designers and design in the collection. Today’s blog post was originally published February 8th, 2015. A favored hangout among the early 1980s East Village art scene, the Fun Gallery became home to some of the New York City’s most notable artists, including...

Superbugs Could Become a Top Cause of Death by 2050

Smithsonian Magazine

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are no mere theoretical threat. In India last year, 58,000 children died of antibiotic-resistant infections. And in a new report conducted for the U.K. government, economist Jim O'Neill calculated that the global death toll to antibiotic resistant diseases could spike—to around 11 million deaths per year in the next 40 or so years, if things continue as they are.

Right now, says the BBC, roughly 700,000 people die from antibiotic-resistant diseases each year. A jump in the number of these deaths—to 10.7 million by 2050—would make these superbugs one of the biggest threats to human life, outpacing even cancer as a killer. Most of these deaths would be in Asia, the world's most populous continent. But according to the BBC, North America would see approximately 317,000 deaths to antibiotic resistant diseases each year.

Constant fear over the next big killer—most of which never amounts to much—can leave some people feeling tired of the hype. After all, new diseases are new, and no one really knows how they're going to shake out. Sometimes a disease grows into an epidemic like AIDS or one like Ebola; sometimes nothing much happens, if the disease burns out before it ever really gets going.

So it's easy to ignore the CDC's fretting over the emergence of so-called “nightmare bacteria”—deadly bacteria that are resistant to nearly every known class of antibiotics. But in the case of antibiotic resistance, the worry is real, and if steps aren't taken soon to address the problem it could spell a disaster for the whole concept of modern medicine—the one we've known since the introduction of penicillin in the 1940s.

According to the BBC, the researchers on the new study suggest that their dire prediction is a conservative one: “The review team believes its analysis represents a significant underestimate of the potential impact of failing to tackle drug resistance, as it did not include the effects on healthcare of a world in which antibiotics no longer worked.”

The Cartographer Who Mapped Out Gotham City

Smithsonian Magazine

Gotham City is the perpetually dark comic book metropolis of alleys, asylums, caves, mansions, and of course, Batman. The Dark Knight of DC Comics celebrates his 75th anniversary this year but Gotham didn’t become the hometown of the Caped Crusader until 1940, when Batman co-creator Bill Finger named the city for the first time in Batman No.4. In the early days of comics, cities weren’t much more than rooftop set pieces and vaguely defined skylines, and Batman was ostensibly fighting crime in a generic city with a vague resemblance to New York, but, as Finger has said, “We didn’t call it New York because we wanted anybody in any city to identify with it.” However, since its inception Gotham has gained an identity as complex and unique as any real American metropolis and is now more closely associated with a single character than any other city in comics. Capital-M Metropolis comes close perhaps, but Superman’s city is nowhere near as interesting as Gotham, in part because Gotham has something that makes it more fully realized and more consistent in its representation than any other fictional city in comics or film: a map.

Gotham City limits were defined in 1998 in preparation for the “No Man’s Land Story” story arc, during which the city was cut off from the United States after nearly being destroyed by a cataclysmic earthquake. It was the comic book version of Escape from New York. However, before DC Comics  could destroy Gotham City, there had to be a Gotham City to destroy. Enter artist and illustrator Eliot R. Brown, the cartographer of Gotham.

(original image)

Brown has no formal training in cartography, but he did study architecture and had previously worked as a technical artist for Marvel Comics, where, as he told me, he was the closest thing they had to an “in-house architect and architectural renderer (and weapons designer and aerospace engineer).” He dreamt up and drew tech specs for Punisher’s weapons, Captain America’s experimental jet, and Iron Man’s armor, and the occasional superhero headquarters. But in 1998 when Brown was contacted by Denny O’Neil, a legendary comics writer and long-time Batman editor, he was faced with an even bigger request: design one of the most iconic cities in comics history. O’Neil wanted a map of Gotham as part of an in-house "bible" to help coordinate the various comics that would be affected by the earthquake. The first step for Brown was to meet with the writers and artists who shared their wish-lists for Gotham locales. As he recalls:

“The DC Comics editors made it clear that Gotham City was an idealized version of Manhattan. Like most comic book constructs, it had to do a lot of things. It needed sophistication and a seamy side. A business district and fine residences. Entertainment, meat packing, garment district, docks and their dockside business. In short all of Manhattan and Brooklyn stuffed into a … well, a nice page layout.”

(original image)

With research materials in hand and a mandate that Gotham had to be an island, Brown began, like Bill Finger, with the idea of a fictionalized Manhattan. Having grown up New York, he knew it well and used his knowledge of the city to plan its fictional counterpart, sprinkling in familiar neighborhoods, parks, civic buildings, monuments, landmarks and transit infrastructure.

(original image)

The city took shape in a week and, after some testy exchanges with editors and few back-and-forth faxes, Gotham’s rough coastline was finalized less than two months later. Brown’s final hand-annotated map of Gotham City included numerous bridges and tunnels ready to be dynamited by the U.S. government, as well as a few forgotten steam tunnels that might be useful to a crimefighter and his allies. Brown didn’t just design the city; he designed an implicit history that writers are still exploring.

(original image)

A few issues of the "No Man’s Land" story arc opened with a map of Gotham, illustrating the shifting boundaries of a turf war that was slowly won by Batman and the Gotham City Police Department. When “No Man’s Land” ended in 1999 and Gotham returned to the status quo, rebuilt with money from Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor and buildings designed by Gotham planner and cartographer Eliot Brown, the map of Gotham City was officially made canon.

(original image)

Since "No Man’s Land," writers and artists have worked within the confines of Gotham’s borders. And some have even expanded them, including the current Batman team of writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo. A simplified version is used in video games and, most visibly, Brown’s map of Gotham was used in the recent Batman films directed by Christopher Nolan, as can be seen above in Bane’s strike map. Brown had no idea his map had been used in the new film trilogy but told me he was “delighted that they helped further the ‘reality’ of the books.”

(original image)

While a map may seem like a small thing, especially for a fictional city, it really does make Gotham feel like more of a real place. So why don’t more comics map out their cities? Why isn’t there a definitive Metropolis or a definitive Star City? Besides the amount of work it takes, Brown thinks the imposition of an official map might just be too limiting for some writers and artists. “If a writer wants Batman to face Croc on a glacier-bound treehouse for mutants—then that's what he writes and gets drawn. If, the next month, Batman is now chasing Harley Quinn at a 24-Hour Endurance Sports Car Race Track—poof, there it is. All right in Gotham City. Put in a better way, it is about allowing the writers to have their freedom.”

Ideally, a city would offer unlimited possibilities. But then again, restrictions can sometimes create the best art. Current Batman writer Scott Snyder has made extensive use of Gotham’s architecture and urban design as a reflection of Batman’s (and Bruce Wayne’s) consciousness and, in so doing, has told fascinating, layered stories rich with metaphor, history, and symbolism, including a mini-series, The Gates of Gotham, about the engineers who designed and built the many bridges that Eliot Brown created for Gotham. Brown no longer works in comics but since he created his map, writers and artists have continued to tell their stories within the confines of Gotham’s borders, and in so doing, have added to the city’s history, creating and exploring the nooks, crannies, alleys, and fire escapes of unique neighborhoods that were once nothing more than a name on paper.

Oh, and if you zoomed out a little on that map, where in the United States would you find Gotham City? New Jersey.

What Happens to the Coins Tossed Into Fountains?

Smithsonian Magazine

Throwing spare change into a fountain is a time-honored ritual: throw a penny into the water, and your wish might come true. But all that money has to go somewhere. Otherwise, the growing piles of pennies, nickels, quarters and Euros could clog up the fountain’s works.

Depending on where a fountain is and who owns it, the coins collected can go to all sorts of different places—from fountain upkeep to charity or public service.

In New York City, for example, change collected from fountains in public parks often go towards the fountain’s upkeep itself, though entrepreneurs who don't mind getting their hands wet often get to it first, writes Adam Chandler for The Atlantic.

“We have over 50 beautiful, decorative display fountains in NYC parks,” New York City Parks and Recreation spokesperson Maeri Ferguson tells Chandler. “They are cleaned regularly by Parks staff (every few weeks), but we consistently find that most of the coins have already been removed by entrepreneurial New Yorkers and there is not a significant amount left to be collected.”

Other cities, though, can pull in a much more serious haul. Take for example, Rome’s iconic Trevi fountain: for hundreds of years, visitors have thrown coins over their shoulder into the fountain to ensure that they return someday. So many tourists toss in coins that Roman officials have the fountain cleaned every night, reportedly netting as much as $4,000 in loose change from around the world each day, the BBC reported in 2006.

Most of the money collected each night goes towards running a supermarket for the needy. And collecting that cash is serious business. Roman officials have been known to be tough on anyone caught skimming coins from the fountain, the BBC reported.

In one case in 2005, police arrested four fountain cleaners after they were spotted slipping coins into their own pockets after collecting them. Authorities finally caught one notorious skimmer nicknamed “d’Artagnan,” banning him from the fountain after he fished out thousands of dollars in change over 34 years using a magnetized wand.

For the most part, money collected from privately-owned fountains in the United States also goes to charity. The fountain in New York City’s Bryant Park is owned and operated by a non-profit corporation, which puts the cash collected by cleaners towards the fountain’s own upkeep.

Chandler reports that private fountains can also rake in tens of thousands of dollars a year, leading private companies to create official policies towards disbursing the change. Minnesota’s Mall of America collects about $24,000 in change each year from its fountains and ponds, and nonprofits can submit applications for a cut of the change.

Tens of thousands of dollars in coins scooped out of wishing wells, fountains, and ponds in Florida’s Walt Disney World are donated each year to support foster children living in the state, Attractions Magazine reports.

Whether or not your wish comes true after tossing a coin into a fountain, you can rest assured knowing that the change is likely going to someone who needs it.

Earl Cunningham? Who He?

Smithsonian Magazine

Mars Climate Change Patterns Seen in Ice Caps

Smithsonian Magazine

Greg Laden is guest-blogging this week while Sarah is on vacation. You can find his regular blog at and Quiche Moraine.

You may know that much of the climate change on earth over the last two million years--the coming and going of ice ages--is caused by the "orbital geometry" of the planet. The amount of planetary tilt and the time of year the tilt occurs change over time. When the Northern Hemisphere is less tilted towards the sun on June 21st, and at the same time the Earth is as far from the sun in its elliptical orbit as it ever gets, ice age conditions prevail. This makes ice ages on Earth pretty regular, cyclic, events.

You also may know that a big chunk of Earth's water is frozen into the ice caps.

You also may know that the history of Earth climate is preserved, in part, in changes in the ice in those ice caps.

Well, same for Mars!

Previously developed climate models suggested that the last 300,000 years of Martian history experienced low-level swings in climate, while the prior 600,000 years experienced more severe swings, owing to differences in the tilt of the planet. Most of the water we know about on Mars is in the Martian polar caps. And now, we can see, using radar, evidence of climate change reflected in that ice. From NASA:

New, three-dimensional imaging of Martian north-polar ice layers by a radar instrument on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is consistent with theoretical models of Martian climate swings during the past few million years.
Alignment of the layering patterns with the modeled climate cycles provides insight about how the layers accumulated. These ice-rich, layered deposits cover an area one-third larger than Texas and form a stack up to 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) thick atop a basal deposit with additional ice.
"Contrast in electrical properties between layers is what provides the reflectivity we observe with the radar," said Nathaniel Putzig..., a member of the science team for the Shallow Radar instrument on the orbiter. "The pattern of reflectivity tells us about the pattern of material variations within the layers."

Essentially, the radar detects different amounts and/or kinds of dirt, and the ice is dirty in different ways. These vastly different climate periods (of more vs. less severe oscillation in climate change) probably leave behind different amounts of dirt in the ice. The radar can penetrate the ice and "see" these differences, with one period having more dirt than another.

There are two distinct models for how the dirt gets concentrated in the ice enough to be distinguished by the radar. One is that ice evaporates away more during some periods than others, leaving behind more dirt when the ice disappears, like the dirty snow during the late winter in northern cities. The other model simply has more dust in the atmosphere, and thus more dust falling on the ice, during certain periods. The present study supports the later model (more dust = dirtier ice). The radar reflectivity signal observed in this study is probably too coarse to link specific features of the signals with specific Martian "ice ages" so far.

"The radar has been giving us spectacular results," said Jeffrey Plaut of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., a co-author of the paper. "We have mapped continuous underground layers in three dimensions across a vast area."

Read more about this study.

The other images are different views of the polar cap using the radar images, and are explained in great detail on NASA's site.

Vitamin Suisse

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
At first glance, this necklace catches the light and each individual bead shimmers like a mirror. Upon closer inspection, however, it is discovered that instead of beads, it is made up of small square pieces of medical pill blister packages, each loosely woven on thin, metal wire. This necklace was designed by Verena Sieber-Fuchs, a...

Second Time Around

Smithsonian Magazine

If you have ever entertained dinner guests by running a wet fingertip around the edge of a crystal goblet to create a musical tone, you have experienced the pure sound that inspired one of Benjamin Franklin's most fantastical creations, the glass armonica. Despite Franklin's lasting contributions to science and politics, his favorite invention was perhaps this rare creation: "Of all my inventions, the glass armonica has given me the greatest personal satisfaction," he wrote. This beloved instrument disappeared mysteriously from the musical landscape in the 19th century, but is now enjoying a renaissance.

While living abroad as a delegate for colonial America, Franklin enjoyed concerts in which musicians coaxed notes from wine glasses, varying those notes with different amounts of water in each glass. Franklin, being Franklin, decided he could do better: "I wished only to see the glasses disposed in a more convenient form, and brought together in a narrower compass, so as to admit of a greater number of tunes and all within reach of hand to a person sitting before the instrument," he wrote. He completed his first glass armonica in 1761.

To eliminate the need for water, he commissioned a London glassblower to make a series of bowls in different sizes, each tuned to a specific note by virtue of its radius and thickness. Each bowl had a hole in the center; Franklin nested them in a row on an iron rod and placed the rod horizontally in a cabinet. Franklin then attached the rod to a wheel, which he turned with a foot treadle much like early sewing machines. The row of bowls resembled a piano keyboard; he painted the rims different colors to identify the notes. By touching the spinning bowls with wet fingers he produced chords and complex melodies.

Franklin brought his armonica with him wherever he traveled, and took particular pleasure in entertaining his friends with Scottish tunes. As word of his invention spread, glassblowers produced several thousand armonicas in the next few years. The haunting music filled parlors and concert halls across Europe and America. Eventually Mozart and Beethoven composed music for it. Dr. Franz Anton Mesmer, who employed hypnosis to treat a variety of ills, used the ethereal sound to induce deeper trances in his patients.

Image by Courtesy of William Zeitler. By touching the spinning bowls with wet fingers, Ben Franklin produced chords and complex melodies. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Dean Shostak. Dean Shostak, who performs more than 200 armonica concerts a year in the United States and abroad, is the only one to play with a foot pedal as Ben Franklin did. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of William Zeitler. "This instrument has been around a long time, and I'm glad to help bring it into the 21st century," says William Zeitler, who is also writing a book on the instrument. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of William Zeitler. Recently, professionals like Zeitler have played the armonica at venues ranging from music festivals to Disney World. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of William Zeitler. "Treatise on the Effects of Music on the Human Body" called into question whether the armonica harmed those who played it. (original image)

Over time, however, reports circulated about glass armonica players suffering a variety of symptoms, from loss of feeling in their hands to nervous disorders. Rumors spread that the music itself could cause mental illness. The author of a 1788 manual on the armonica advised that some people avoid playing the instrument, "in order that their state of mind not be aggravated."

Some speculated that lead in the glass and paint induced lead poisoning; that theory has never been proven. Perhaps the challenge of transporting a glass instrument proved too daunting. Or maybe the relatively quiet armonica couldn't compete with more robust instruments. Whatever the reason, by the early 19th century, the armonica had fallen out of favor.

That all changed in the 1980s, when inventor and glassblower Gerhard Finkenbeiner of Waltham, Massachusetts, began producing the instrument. Finkenbeiner, an expert in blowing custom glass for scientific uses, had seen an armonica in a German museum as a child and had never forgotten it. Much like Franklin, Finkenbeiner loved the sound and wanted to share it with the world. He began producing armonicas made of quartz, which is 99.9 percent pure silica and yields remarkably clear sound waves. "Once you've heard the clarity of the quartz, there's no going back," says Thomas Hession, who has blown the glass for Finkenbeiner's armonicas since the master's death a few years ago. Finkenbeiner also modernized the instrument by using an electric motor to turn the bowls.

Watch this video in the original article

G. Finkenbeiner, Inc., where the main business is the manufacture of highly-specialized glass for scientific uses, has produced more than 200 of these musical instruments, ranging in price from $7,000 to $40,000. Customers have included the Sultan of Oman, the producers of the television hit "Extreme Makeover Home Edition" and a handful of professional musicians.

Those professionals have played the armonica at venues ranging from music festivals to Disney World. Through their passion, the hauntingly beautiful sound is spreading and can now be heard in movie soundtracks and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. The year-long celebration of Franklin's 300th birthday in 2006 also gave the instrument a boost in visibility.

Those enamored of the instrument, like Cecelia Brauer of New York, want everyone to know about it. A professional pianist who performs educational programs at museums, historical sites and schools, Brauer discovered the armonica in 1990. The Daughters of the American Revolution will recognize musician William Zeitler with their Medal of Honor this month for his efforts in bringing back the armonica. "This instrument has been around a long time, and I'm glad to help bring it into the 21st century," says Zeitler, who is also writing a book on the instrument.

Dean Shostak, who performs more than 200 armonica concerts a year in the United States and abroad, is the only one to play with a foot pedal as Franklin did. Steeped in the instrument's history, he recalls reading tantalizing accounts of the armonica. "The stories talked about how the music affected audiences, how it captured the audience in a way you have to hear to really understand," he says.

Like his fellow aficionados, Shostak revels in the instrument's past and looks with excitement to the future: "Franklin had a spirit of musical adventure that I feel was lost for a time," he says. "Maybe the glass armonica will show us the way back to that spirit."

Cut Your Use of Plastic, Plastic, Plastic

Smithsonian Magazine

You are not new to recycling.  You’ve been doing it for years and it’s a big part of your daily routine. You’ve become at an expert at identifying what plastics you can and cannot recycle. Now focus on another important part of eco-friendly living: reduce your use of plastic.

Each year, an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide. That comes out to over one million per minute. Billions end up as litter each year or in landfills. If that’s not enough, almost 3 million tons of plastic are used to bottle water each year worldwide. Nearly 80 percent of all water bottles are not recycled and wind up in landfills.  We are drowning in plastic, people!

That plastic can be bad for us and bad for the environment. Recent studies have shown that there’s more plastic than plankton in some of the remote parts of our oceans. And there are increasing reports on the human health effects of chemicals used in plastic products. Let’s also not forget that plastic is made from petroleum, which is a non-renewable resource and a major contributor to global warming.

So let’s get to it– how to reduce your use of plastics:

1. Don’t use garbage bags—just empty your trash into the garbage bin.

2. If you don’t like that approach, get yourself some recycled or biodegradable, compostable garbage bags.

3. Request that your daily newspaper not be wrapped in plastic when delivered. (Or cancel your newspaper subscription and go totally online for your news fix– you’ll save hundreds of trees as well.)

4. Take your own plastic or metal container to the restaurant to take home your leftovers when you’re eating out. Sure they’ll look at you funny, but remember you’re an eco-trend-setter!

5. Remind your favorite take-out place to leave out the plastic utensils when they pack your food to go. Your drawers are full of them already! And politely decline the bag if you only have one or two items to carry home.

6. Ask you favorite dry-cleaners to eliminate the plastic wrap on your clothes. Don’t forget to choose an eco-friendly, non-toxic dry cleaner too.

7. Take your reusable coffee tumbler with you when get coffee to-go. And skip the lid for your soft drink. Those plastic lids add up!  And now you don’t need a plastic straw.

8. You’ve heard it before but it’s critical: The simple most profound solution to reduce plastic consumption is to bring your own bags when you shop at the grocery store, drugstore or mall.  There are so many great cotton, canvas, even hemp bags available now in endless sizes and styles. Have you seen the ultra-light compact Chicobags? Throw two in your car or purse so you’re never without a reusable bag and you’ll always have one handy!

9. Another major source of plastic bag waste are the pesky flimsy plastic produce bags that accumulate in your closet.  Reusable cotton mesh produce sacks are a simple solution to that problem. Check them out at Toss them in your reusable shopping bag and head to the market. Each reusable bag you use has the potential to eliminate thousands of plastic bags over its lifetime.

10. And let’s all remember the problem that is the disposable plastic water bottle.  Many alternatives to plastic water bottles are available. Kleen Kanteen and SIIG water bottles are stainless steel safe alternatives to plastic water bottle and are available in many sizes.

11. For water use in the office…Remember the novel concept of a pitcher or a glass of water? You don’t have to drink from a bottle.

12. There are loads of ways to reduce your consumption of plastic when you store leftovers, pack lunches or food to go. Ditch those plastic baggies or foil for containers that come in endless shapes and sizes and you can use them over and over again! Pack them in your reusable lunch sack too.

13. Become an eco-wise consumer whenever you shop. Choose products that contain less packaging. Check every plastic container before you chuck it– it may be recyclable! Purchase products in larger containers—get a huge jug of laundry detergent rather than three smaller ones.  Choose glass bottles over plastic whenever possible.

Just as recycling has become second nature, these simple ways to reduce our consumption of plastic make a world of difference! And don’t be afraid to speak up about these ideas.  The more that retailers and restaurants hear about alternatives, the better the chance that they’ll make changes in the way they do business. That way we’ll multiply our individual actions.

What ideas do YOU have? We’d love to hear them!

FOR HIRE: Volcanologist

Smithsonian Magazine

Richard Fiske's 50-year career as a volcanologist includes 13 years with the United States Geological Survey, stints in California's Sierra Nevada, the islands of St. Vincent and Guadalupe, Japan and Hawaii and 30 years with Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Now a year and a half into retirement, Fiske continues to spend five to six weeks per year in the field, collecting enough data and samples to keep him clocking a normal schedule as a geologist emeritus in the museum's Division of Petrology and Volcanology. Fiske's work has helped people understand how and why volcanoes erupt, and now he helps understand just what it takes to be a groundbreaking volcanologist.

How did you get into this line of work?

It was just a lucky accident in graduate school. I went to graduate school at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and my professor there received a research grant to study Mount Rainier National Park in Washington state and prepare a geologic map of the entire park, including the big volcano, Mount Rainier. This work involved tracing layers of different types of rock from place to place and collecting lots of samples and bringing them back to the laboratory where we would study them in great detail. Once you work on a volcano, speaking for myself, you become hooked for life.

What sort of training or background is required?

To be a research scientist of any type these days you have to have a PhD and, better yet, have a few years of post-doctoral experience in your chosen field. After getting a PhD in geology at Johns Hopkins, I spent one year in Japan on a postdoc and two additional years back at Johns Hopkins.

What's an average day like in the field?

I'm either working on the active volcano in Hawaii, Kilauea volcano, or I go to Japan and join Japanese research scientists on cruises to submarine volcanoes south of Japan. In Hawaii, we're looking for thin deposits of ash made of particles that erupted violently out of the volcano. These thin layers of ash are often very difficult to see, and in many places they've been covered by younger lava flows. So we have to find places where we can look under a young lava flow to see the ash that is covered by it. Generally, this is done in wide cracks maybe three or four feet wide that we're able to climb down into. Sometimes we go as deep as 40 or 50 feet down to see the ash that is preserved there.

On a research ship, we are mostly asking the crew of the ship to launch an ROV, a remotely operated vehicle. It's a small submarine that's tethered to the ship by a long cable and lowered down to the sea floor. While we're up on the ship we can see exactly what is located on the sea floor, and the submarine has mechanical arms that can be used to reach out, pick up samples and put them in a little basket on the front of the submersible.

Any exciting discoveries?

In Japan, I was a member of the team that discovered an actively growing mineral deposit on the ocean floor—a huge deposit of sulfide minerals very rich in gold and silver. This deposit is about as big as the Pentagon and about twice as high, and it's growing. Basically, we discovered an ore deposit that in today's market might be worth several billion dollars. The problem is that it's located at a depth of about 4,000 feet below sea level. So no attempt has been made thus far to mine it. But maybe someday people will figure out ways to do this that are environmentally acceptable.

What is the biggest misconception about your work?

The biggest misconception in Hawaii is that the volcanoes are gentle in their activity. There have been many instances in the past 20 years when tourists have been able to walk right up to the edge of actively flowing lava, so that conveys the impression that the volcano is always gentle and safe to be around. But our research has shown that this is not necessarily the case. [On Kilauea volcano], we've found evidence that rocks the size of grapefruits have been hurled for six or seven miles distance, and rocks the size of golf balls have gone all the way down to the south shore of the island, which is a distance of about ten miles from the summit.

How risky is the job?

You have to be careful. I've had friends that have been killed or injured by volcanic eruptions, but they made the mistake of going too close. If the volcano is acting strangely or erupting violently, you have to stay away because it can suddenly get more dangerous than it was before. It's very easy to be killed by falling debris or hot gases that come surging out of volcanoes.

What advice do you have for someone just entering this field?

The first thing anybody would have to understand is that the field of volcanology is a very small field. Although there are hundreds of volcanoes on the earth, there are not that many people studying them. I would say just get a good, solid geological background, take as much math and physics as you can and try to go to a good graduate school. If you're going to specialize in volcanoes, choose a graduate school where one or more of the professors is also a specialist in volcanoes. That's the way you can be helped to become viable in the marketplace.

What's the most interesting part of the job?

The fieldwork. It's like a mystery novel. We're uncovering clues. It's been very exciting.

It’s Not a Health Hazard to Have Sushi Made With Bare Hands, It’s a Necessity

Smithsonian Magazine

A slice. A dab of wasabi. A gentle press and a flip followed by slow, firm squeezes as fish and rice come together in a piece of nigirizushi. The word “nigiri” in nigirizushi means to “grip,” “grasp,” or “hold.” The beautiful hands of the chef holding sushi radiate confidence and move with grace and precision. They have survived cuts and burns. Hours of relentless repetition have drilled and hammered the tactile memories of fish and rice into every nerve ending of every fingertip. Knowledge, skill, and intuition have been programmed into those hands, the chef’s most valuable tools and his medium for creativity.

A California food safety law that was put into effect at the beginning of the year effectively silenced the hands of sushi chefs by requiring food workers to wear gloves while handling “ready-to-eat” food. Pending approval by the California State Senate, this provision of the law will be repealed, eliciting a big sigh of relief from sushi chefs and sushi aficionados alike. The law, which was intended to prevent the spread of foodborne illnesses, caused great disruption in sushi chefs’ routines. It changed the way they held their knives, filleted their fish, and prepared each piece of fish. Many of the chefs at the Los Angeles sushi restaurants I used to frequent felt as if they had lost their voice, for it was through their hands that they communicated with their fish, and ultimately, their hungry and loyal customers. Even the sushi chefs in Tokyo, the city I now call my home, were saddened by this news.

Sushi is a simple concept—fish and rice. Yet it is also history, anatomy and anthropology in culinary form. Each perfectly constructed piece tells a unique story. A translucent slice of flounder is gently draped over vinegared rice and presented on a lacquered plate. That flounder, which has acquired a few extra pounds of fat while traveling through the cold winter seas, glides over your tongue like satin and opens up to a bouquet of elegant flavors.

Running along the curvature of a line-caught sea bream, the sushi chef’s fingertips see everything: fat distribution, water content, muscle thickness. Depending on what he feels, he may decide to let the fish age for a few days, to let flavors come to life and textures mature. He may cure the fish between two strips of kombu, using the kelp to coax out water from the flesh while simultaneously infusing it with umami. Those fingertips will know the exact minute when the fish has been aged or cured to perfection—no more and no less.

Kawahiki (removing the skin), oroshi (filleting), honenuki (removing the bones), sujime (marinating in vinegar). Each laborious step of preparation is a testament to a chef’s precision and attention. No item tests a chef’s skills more transparently than kohada—gizzard shad. This small, silver-skinned fish must be swiftly filleted, deboned, salt-cured then vinegar-marinated. Marinate it for too long, and the vinegar will overpower the fish, the skin will lose its silver luster, and the flesh will fall apart. Not enough marinade or salt cure, and the finicky fish will instantly spoil and lose its magic. Every step is meticulously quality- controlled and calculated by a chef’s fingertips—he feels for a particular bounce and give in its texture—and must also be adjusted to that day’s humidity and temperature.

But the true test for sushi is in the shari—the rice. Chefs and diners all agree that the majority of flavor is determined by the shari, and the rest by the fish. When the chef makes the nigiri, he will use his fingertips to weigh out the optimal amount of rice for each piece— slightly less for squid and scallop, and slightly more for those with a stronger flavor profile like kohada.

A seasoned chef will even manipulate the orientation and position of rice grains when making the nigiri, and may even be able to tell the exact number of rice grains in his hand. When the air pockets are evenly distributed between each uniformly aligned grain, the rice and the fish perfectly meld together for an optimal balance of texture and flavor.

The simplicity of sushi makes each piece vulnerable to even the most minute adjustments and subtle differences. Our emotional and physical states affect the way that we feel with our fingertips, express through our hands, and relate to our environment. To cover those hands with gloves—whether they belong to a sculptor, a dancer, a violinist, or a sushi chef—is to take away a mode of expressing love, adoration, and respect for craft. Perhaps it even takes away these artists’ very reason for being. I’m glad that California has decided this experience is worth saving.

Tomoko Kurokawa is a doctor, food writer and world traveler who lives in Tokyo, Japan with a second home in Los Angeles. She wrote this for Zocalo Public Square.

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