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How Central Park’s Complex History Played Into the Case Against the 'Central Park Five'

Smithsonian Magazine

For more than a century, New York City’s Central Park was the soothing natural counter to the steel and concrete chaos. Designed to be an amalgam of the best parts of nature, the park, though it had its ups and downs, played a special role as the leafy-green heart of the city.

So, when news of a brutal attack in the park swept the city on April 19, 1989, the public outcry was enormous. The assault and rape of an unnamed victim, a woman since identified as Trisha Meili but then only known as “the jogger,” was plastered across headlines for months. Even the media shorthand for the case revealed the significance of the crime’s setting—the five boys accused of the crime became forever known as the “Central Park Five.”

“Central Park was holy,” said Ed Koch, mayor of New York at the time of the attack, in Ken Burns’ 2012 documentary on the case. “If it had happened anyplace else other than Central Park, it would have been terrible, but it would not have been as terrible.”

All five of the teenage defendants—Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise and Antron McCray—were found guilty and served between 6 and 13 years in prison. Most of the evidence against them came from a series of written and videotaped confessions, which, during the two trials, the boys said were coerced; DNA evidence from the crime scene produced no matches. Still, both juries, as well as most of the New York tabloids, were convinced of the teenagers’ guilt. The story of the case is retold in the new Netflix miniseries "When They See Us," which premieres today.

But in 2002, the case re-opened when Matias Reyes, a serial rapist serving a prison sentence for other crimes, confessed as the sole attacker in the Central Park case. His DNA and his account of the attack matched the original evidence. A judge vacated the Central Park Five’s convictions later that year, after the defendants had all served out their sentences, and New York was left to once more reckon with a case that had been closed for years.

Within that reckoning lay the question: Why had this case become so closely tied with the identity of Central Park? Maybe it was because a brutal attack on park grounds was such a perversion of the park’s original mission to serve as a calming and even civilizing space for all the city’s residents. Or maybe it was because such an occurrence exposed how that mission, and the city’s egalitarian project, had never been fully realized.


In the mid-19th century, New York’s population boomed as immigrants flooded in, particularly from Ireland, and as American-born migrants fled country farms for city life in an ever-industrializing nation. Even as buildings sprouted rapidly across the city, conditions grew ever more cramped and hazardous. Amid this increasing city-wide claustrophobia, some New Yorkers began to call for a park where green spaces could provide a healing respite for city dwellers.

“Commerce is devouring inch by inch the coast of the island, and if we would rescue any part of it for health and recreation it must be done now,” wrote William C. Bryant, editor of the New York Evening Post and a leading advocate for Central Park’s creation, in an 1844 editorial.

Of course, some motives for creating the park were more paternalistic, as city elites thought a cultivated, natural area could help “civilize” the New York underclass. Others were more business-minded, as realtors knew beautifying undeveloped land would raise property values for surrounding properties. In any case, state legislators were convinced, and set out to build the first major landscaped public park in the United States.

The city landed upon the 700-acre Manhattan expanse where the park still rambles to this day, sprawling out between Fifth and Eighth Avenue and from 59th Street to 106th Street (later expanded a few blocks to 110th). Because of its rough terrain, in which swampy muck alternated with harsh rock, the area didn’t hold much appeal for real estate developers, and in 1853, the city used its power of eminent domain to claim the land as public property and begin its transformation.

The Mall, Central Park, New York', circa 1897. A pedestrian esplanade in Central Park, Manhattan designed to plans by plan of Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. (The Print Collector/Getty Images)

From the beginning, though, the park had an element of controversy: When the city tapped the area for its own use, more than 1,600 people already lived on the future park’s land. Hundreds were occupants of Seneca Village, a community established by free African-American property owners in 1825, two years before slavery was abolished in New York. Once the city claimed the land, police forcibly evicted Seneca Village residents, who probably scattered throughout the New York area. The community’s houses, churches and school were razed to make way for the rolling landscape designs of Olmsted and his design partner, Calvert Vaux.

In Olmsted’s eyes, the park would be a great equalizer among New York’s stratified classes. He’d been inspired by gardens in Europe, and especially by a visit to Birkenhead Park, the first publicly funded park in England. He noted that the site was enjoyed “about equally by all classes,” unlike most of the other cultivated natural grounds at the time, which were privately held by the wealthy elite.

A similar park would be, for Olmsted, an important part of the “great American democratic experiment,” says Stephen Mexal, an English professor at California State University Fullerton who has researched Central Park and its role in the Central Park Five case.

“There was a link that he thought was meaningful between genteel manners, people of genteel birth and genteel landscapes,” Mexal says. “And he said, ‘Well, what if we just kind of took those landscapes and made them more available to everybody?’ So, he said that the park would have this, quote, ‘refining influence’ among everybody in the city.”

Olmsted and Vaux’s “Greensward Plan” beat out more than 30 other entries in a public contest, promising sweeping pastoral expanses and lush greenery. Their vision came to life quickly, and by 1858 the first section of the park opened to the public. Millions of visitors poured into the park in its first years. Families flocked to skate on the lake in winter, and the fashionable New York set paraded into the park in carriages to socialize. Strict rules tried to set a tone of tranquil decorum in the park, prohibiting rowdy sports, public concerts and even walking on the wide grass lawns.

For a time, it seemed like Olmsted’s dream was fulfilled: He’d created a beautiful green respite in the middle of the city’s chaos, an idealized image of nature for all to enjoy.

“There is no other place in the world that is as much home to me,” Olmsted wrote of Central Park. “I love it all through and all the more for the trials it has cost me.”

Image by Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images. Horse-drawn carriages and coaches on the driveway, Central Park. (original image)

Image by Rae Russel/Getty Images. View of a well-dressed couple as they enjoy boating on one of the ponds in Central Park, New York, New York, 1948 (original image)

Image by Robert Walker/New York Times Co./Getty Images. Anti-Vietnam War peace rally at Sheep Meadow in Central Park, New York City, in April 1968. (original image)

Image by Ernst Haas/Getty Images. People walking in Central Park in 1980 (original image)

Olmsted, however, may not have been prepared for the reality of a true “park for the people.” As the 19th century wore on, more working-class citizens and immigrants began frequenting the park, disrupting the “genteel” air its creator had so carefully cultivated on their supposed behalf. Sunday afternoon concerts, tennis matches, carousel rides and lawn picnics became important pieces of the park’s new character.

Though Olmsted bemoaned the “careless stupidity” with which many misused his perfectly groomed landscape, his democratic experiment, once set in action, could not be reeled in. Ultimately, even Olmsted’s best efforts couldn’t bring about harmony in the city. As New York continued its growth into the next century, Central Park, intended to be an outlet to relieve the pressures of city living, instead became a microcosm for the urban condition—its use reflecting the changing tides of its country.

In the 1940s, newspapers latched onto the idea of a “crime wave” in the park after a young boy was murdered, a fear that persisted even though Central Park remained one of the safest precincts in the city. Protesters filled the park’s lawns in the 1960s, staging counterculture “be-ins” to speak out against racism and the Vietnam War.

The park gradually fell into disrepair, and though the city government made some efforts at undoing the century’s worth of damage upon Olmsted’s carefully designed structures and landscapes, in the 1970s the city’s financial crisis sapped city funds and park conservation fell by the wayside.

In 1975, a New York Times reporter lamented the park’s “state of galloping decay,” noting the “boarded windows, broken stonework and weed-gouged mortar” of the park’s famous Belvedere Castle.

“It can stand as a symbol of the decline of the park—the slow death of the Olmsted landscape in spite of spotty first aid and the private generosity that rebuilds an occasional bit of token architectural design,” the reporter wrote.

The decaying park, in turn, could stand as a symbol of the struggling city surrounding it. During the decade or so leading up to the Central Park Five case, New York City was a powder keg of competing fears and tensions. The crack-cocaine epidemic emerged as a major threat in the early 1980s. Homelessness swelled at the same time as a growing financial sector brought immense wealth to a select few. Violent crimes climbed ever higher, with a record 1,896 homicides reported in 1988.

When the Central Park jogger attack was reported, it ignited that powder keg, setting off widespread public outrage and a media firestorm.

One word in particular became a centerpiece for coverage of the case: “wilding.” Police reported that the boys had used the term to describe the attack’s motive, or rather, its lack thereof. The concept of “wilding”—roaming around and wreaking havoc, just for the fun of it—sparked fascination and terror. “Park marauders call it ‘wilding’ … and it’s street slang for going berserk,” the New York Daily News proclaimed.

The obsession over this concept, of totally random and gleeful criminality, helped fuel the continuing fervor over the case, Mexal says.

“That crime captured the public's attention for a number of reasons. Partially because it was the assault of a white woman by, they thought, non-white males,” he says. “But also because of the beliefs about nature, savagery and wilderness that the word ‘wilding’ seem to conjure, especially when it was put against this backdrop of Central Park, which is a built environment that is a stylized recreation of a natural space.”

The park was supposed to be a sanitized version of nature, Mexal explains—one that substituted calm civility for genuine wilderness and the danger that came with it. A pattern of “wilding” through the park’s cultivated landscapes would show a failure of this attempt to conquer the natural world.

Media coverage took this idea of “wildness” and ran with it. Newspapers repeatedly referred to the five defendants in sub-human terms: They were a “wolf pack,” “savages,” “monsters,” with the unsuspecting woman as their “prey.” In addition to following a long tradition of dehumanizing language about African-Americans, such headlines fed into the outrage that seemed to spring up any time something went wrong in Central Park.

An abandoned boathouse in Central Park in 1986. (Thomas Monaster/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Even through varying states of disarray, the park remained close to New Yorkers’ hearts. In the 1980s, commentators still referred to Central Park as “the most popular and democratic space in America” or as “the one truly democratic space in the city,” as Elizabeth Blackmar and Roy Rosenzweig write in their historical account of Central Park. Meili, the victim of the attack, recalled her love for running in the park, a routine she followed most days of the week.

"It was a release to be out there in nature, to see the beauty of the park ... as well as the skyscrapers and the lights of New York City, and the sense that, 'Wow, this is my city. I'm here in my park,’" Meili told ABC News in a recent interview. "I loved the freedom of the park. ... It just gave me a sense of vitality."

It follows that any crime in the park became all the more personal for New Yorkers because of its setting. Crime in Central Park “shock[ed] people like crime in heaven,” as one captain of the park police precinct said.

The Central Park Five case has been, at various points, a terrifying example of pointless crime, and a chilling story of false convictions; it has sparked cries to bring back the death penalty, and to reform the criminal justice system.

The case and its coverage have also been deeply shaped by the setting of the crime in question—a manmade piece of nature that represents its city not despite its many conflicts and paradoxes, but because of them.

The Unsolved Murder of Civil Rights Activist Harry Moore

Smithsonian Magazine

It was late on Christmas night, 1951, but Harry and Harriette Moore had yet to open any gifts. Instead they had delayed the festivities in anticipation of the arrival of their younger daughter, Evangeline, who was taking a train home from Washington, D.C. to celebrate along with her sister and grandmother. The Moores had another cause for celebration: the day marked their 25th wedding anniversary, a testament to their unshakeable partnership. But that night in their quiet home on a citrus grove in rural Mims, Florida, the African American couple were fatal victims of a horrific terrorist attack at the hands of those who wanted to silence the Moores.

At 10:20 p.m., a blast ripped apart their bedroom, splintering the floorboards, ceiling and front porch. The explosion was so powerful that witness reported hearing it several miles away. Pamphlets pushing for voters’ rights floated out of the house and onto the street, remnants of a long fight for justice. Harry Moore had spent much of the last two decades earning the enmity of Florida’s white supremacists as he organized for equal pay, voter registration, and justice for murdered African Americans. And yet despite his immense sacrifice and the nation’s initial shock at his assassination, Moore’s name soon faded from the pantheon of Civil Rights martyrs.

After the attack, Moore’s mother and daughter knew they would be unable to get an ambulance willing to transport a black victim, so nearby relatives drove the wounded Harry and Harriette to the town of Sanford, which was more than 30 miles away on a dark, two-lane road bracketed by dense foliage. Harry died shortly after arriving in the hospital, Harriette would die a little more than a week later. When Evangeline arrived at the train station the next day, “She didn’t see her mother and father, but she saw her aunts and uncles and family members. She knew something was wrong,” says Sonya Mallard, coordinator for the Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore Cultural Complex, who knew Evangeline before her death in 2015. Her uncle broke the news on the drive to the hospital, and “her world was never the same again. Never.”

In the years before his death, Harry Moore was increasingly a marked man—and he knew it. But he had begun charting this course in the 1930s, when he worked tirelessly to register black voters. He later expanded his efforts into fighting injustice in lynching cases (Florida had more lynchings per capita than any other state at the time), putting him in the crosshairs of Florida’s most violent and virulent racists.

“Harry T. Moore understood that we had to make a better way, we had to change what was going on here in the state of Florida,” says Mallard. Traveling around the state on roads where it was too dangerous to even use a public restroom, Moore’s mother, Rosa, worried he’d be killed, “but he kept on going because he knew it was bigger than him,” says Mallard.

Moore was born in 1905 in the panhandle town of Houston, Florida. His father, Johnny, owned a small shop and worked for the railroad, and died when Harry was just 9 years old. After trying to support her son as a single parent, Rosa sent Harry to live with his aunts in Jacksonville, a hub for African American business and culture that would prove to be influential on the young Moore. After graduating from Florida Memorial College, as today’s university was then known, Moore likely could have made a relatively comfortable life in Jacksonville.

However, the climate in Florida as a whole as hostile to African Americans. His formative years were ones of pervasive racial violence often unchecked by officials. Before the 1920 election, displaying the impunity enjoyed by white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan “marched in downtown Orlando specifically to intimidate black voters,” says Ben Brotemarkle, executive director of the Florida Historical Society. When a man named July Perry came to Orlando from nearby Ocoee to vote, he was beaten, shot and hung from a light post and then the primarily African American town was burned in a mob rampage that killed dozens. For decades after, Ocoee had no black residents and was known as a “sundown town”; today the city of 46,000 is 21 percent African American.

A portrait of Harry T. and Henrietta V. Moore (Courtesy of the Moore Cultural Complex)

In 1925, Moore began teaching at a school for black students in Cocoa, Florida, a few miles south of Mims and later assumed the role of principal at the Titusville Colored School. His first year in Cocoa, Harry met Harriette Simms, three years his senior, at a party. She later became a teacher after the birth of their first daughter, Annie Rosalea, known as Peaches. Evangeline was born in 1930.)

His civic activism flowed from his educational activism. “He would bring his own materials and educate students about black history, but what he also did was bring in ballots and he taught his students how to vote. He taught his students the importance of the candidates and making a decision to vote for people who took your interests seriously,” says Brotemarkle.

In 1934, Moore joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an indication of his growing interest in civic matters. In 1937, Moore pushed for a lawsuit challenging the chasm between black and white teachers’ salaries in his local Brevard County, with fellow educator John Gilbert as the plaintiff. Moore enlisted the support of NAACP lawyer (and later Supreme Court Justice) Thurgood Marshall, the start of their professional collaboration. The lawsuit was defeated in both the Circuit Court and the Florida Supreme Court. For his efforts, the Moores later lost their teachings jobs—as did Gilbert.

In the early 1940s, Moore organized the Florida State conference of the NAACP and significantly increased membership (he would later become its first paid executive secretary). He also formed the Progressive Voters’ League in Florida in 1944. “He understood the significance of the power of the vote. He understood the significance of the power of the pen. And he wrote letters and typed letters to anyone and everyone that would listen. And he knew that [African Americans] had to have a voice and we had to have it by voting,” says Mallard. In 1947, building on the U.S. Supreme Court case in which Marshall successfully argued against Texas’ “white primary” that excluded minority voters, Moore organized a letter writing campaign to help rebuff bills proposed in the Florida legislature that would effectively perpetuate white primaries. (As the Tampa Bay Times notes, Florida was “a leading innovator of discriminatory barriers to voting.”)

Before his death, Moore’s efforts in the state helped increase the number of black voters by more than 100,000, according to the Moore Cultural Complex, a figure sure to catch the attention of influential politicians.

But success was a risky proposition. “Moore was coming into a situation in Central Florida where there was a lot of Klan activity, there were a lot of Klansman who had positions in government, and it was a very tenuous time for civil rights,” says Brotemarkle. “People were openly being intimidated and kept away from the polls, and Moore worked diligently to fight that.”

Moore was willing to risk much more than his job. He first became involved in anti-lynching efforts after three white men kidnapped 15-year-old Willie James Howard, bound him with ropes and drowned him in a river for the “crime” of passing a note to a white girl in 1944. The perpetual inaction in cases like Howard’s, in which no one was arrested, tried, or convicted, spurred Moore to effect change. In a 1947 letter to Florida’s congressional delegation, Moore wrote “We cannot afford to wait until the several states get ‘trained’ or ‘educated’ to the point where they can take effective action in such cases. Human life is too valuable for more experimenting of this kind. The Federal Government must be empowered to take the necessary action for the protection of its citizens.”

Moore letters show a polite, but persistent, push for change. His scholarly nature obscured the profound courage it took to stand up to the hostile forces around him in Florida. Those who knew him recall a quiet, soft-spoken man. “The fiery from the pulpit speech? That was not Harry T. Moore. He was much more behind the scenes, but no less aggressive. You can see it from his letters that he was every bit as brave,” says Brotemarkle.

Two years before his death, Moore placed himself in harm’s way in the most prominent manner yet with his involvement in the Groveland Four incident. The men had been accused of raping a white woman; a mob went to drag them from jail and not finding them there, burned and shot into nearby black residents’ homes. After their arrest, conviction by an all-white jury was practically a foregone conclusion, despite attorneys’ assertions that the defendants’ confessions were physically coerced. The case also pitted Moore against Sherriff Willis McCall, who was investigated numerous times in his career for misconduct related to race.

While transporting two of the suspects, McCall shot them, killing one. McCall claimed he had been attacked, but the shootings elicited furious protest. All this took place against the backdrop of the ongoing legal battle—eventually, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a re-trial, which again ended in the conviction of the surviving suspect, who was represented by Thurgood Marshall. (In recent years, Florida has posthumously pardoned and apologized to all four of the accused).

Moore wrote repeatedly to Governor Fuller Warren, methodically dismantling McCall’s claims. He admonished Warren that “Florida is on trial before the rest of the world,” calling on him to remove the officers involved in the shooting. He closed with a reminder that “Florida Negro citizens are still mindful of the fact that our votes proved to be your margin of victory in the [runoff election in] 1948. We seek no special favors; but certainly we have a right to expect justice and equal protection of the laws even for the humblest Negro. Shall we be disappointed again?”

Compounding Moore’s woes, just weeks after the shooting of the Groveland suspects and weeks before his own death, he lost his job at the NAACP. Moore had clashed with the organization’s national leadership for his forward political involvement and disagreements over fundraising. It was a severe blow, but he continued his commitment to the work—albeit now on an unpaid basis.

During the fall of 1951, Florida saw a rash of religious and racial violence. Over a three-month period, multiple bombs had hit Carver Village, a housing complex in Miami leasing to black tenants, in what was likely the work of the KKK; a synagogue and Catholic church were also menaced. “As dark shadow of violence has drifted across sunny Florida—cast by terrorist who blast and kill in the night,” the Associated Press reported days after the Christmas bombing. If lesser known black residents were targeted, then Moore’s prominence meant his situation was especially perilous.

“Moore ruffled a lot of feathers, and there was a large population of Florida that didn’t want to see the type of change that he was part of,” says Brotemarkle.

“I tried to get him to quit the N.A.A.C.P., thinking something might happen to him some day,” Rosa Moore told a reporter after the bombing. “But he told me, ‘I’m trying to do what I can to elevate the Negro race. Every advancement comes by the way of sacrifice, and if I sacrifice my life or health I still think it is my duty for my race.”

News of Moore’s Christmas night death made headlines across the country. Former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt expressed her sadness. Governor Warren called for a full investigation but clashed with NAACP executive secretary Walter White, who accused the governor of not doing enough. Warren said White “has come to Florida to try to stir up strife” and called him a “hired Harlem hatemonger.”

While Moore may have been out of favor with the NAACP’s national leadership shortly before his death, he was venerated soon after. In March of 1952, the NAACP held a fundraising gala in New York City, featuring the “Ballad of Harry T. Moore,” written by poet Langston Hughes. His name was a rallying cry at numerous events.

“The Moore bombings set off the most intense civil rights uproar in a decade,” writes Ben Green in Before His Time: The Untold Story of Harry T. Moore, America’s First Civil Rights Martyr. “There had been more violent racial incidents…but the Moore bombing was so personal, so singular – a man and his wife blown up in their home on Christmas Day – that it became a magnifying glass to focus the nation’s revulsion.”

While the publicity helped galvanize awareness for civil rights on a national level, the assassination soon had a chilling effect on voter registration in Florida. “People were petrified, they were scared,” says Mallard. The KKK “terrorized you, they killed you, they lynched you, they scared you. They did all that to shut you up.”

Meanwhile Harriette Moore remained hospitalized for nine days, dying from her injuries one day after her husband’s funeral. “There isn't much left to fight for. My home is wrecked. My children are grown up. They don't need me. Others can carry on," she had told a reporter in a bedside interview. Harriette’s discouragement was palpable, after years of facing the same threats side by side with Harry. “She adored her husband,” says Mallard.

The crime has never been definitively solved, despite commitments from notorious FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover in the bombing’s aftermath and from Florida Governor Charlie Crist in the mid-2000s. After almost 70 years, the identity of the killer or killers may never be pinpointed, but those who have studied Moore’s life and the multiple investigations of the case are confident it was the work of the KKK.

“As the movement’s ranks swelled and the battle was carried to Birmingham, Nashville, Tallahassee, Little Rock, Greensboro and beyond, the unsolved murders of Harry and Harriette Moore, still hanging in limbo, were forgotten,” Green writes. “For Evangeline and Peaches Moore, the pain and heartache never ceased. The murderers of their parents still walked the streets, and no one seemed to care.”

A quote by Harry Moore adorns a fountain outside the Moore Cultural Complex (Francine Uenuma)

Moore’s life and death underscore that not all heroes become legends. Today cities like Selma, Montgomery and Memphis—not Mims—evoke images of the Civil Rights struggle. Moore worked for almost two decades without the weight of national outrage behind him. No television cameras documented the brutal violence or produced the images needed to appall Americans in other states. The Maya Lin-designed Civil Rights Memorial situated across the street from the Southern Poverty Law Center’s office in Montgomery, Alabama, recognizes martyrs from 1955 until Martin Luther King Jr.’s death in 1968. That was 17 years after the Moores were killed.

“When you talk about the contemporary civil rights movement, [people] look at the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 as kind of the starting place for the timeline, and while that can be seen as true in a lot of ways, it overlooks a lot of activity that led up to that,” says Brotemarkle.

Nonetheless Moore’s work and legacy helped lay the groundwork for the expansion of civil rights onto the national platform, and Moore has received some belated recognition in recent decades. The Moore Cultural Complex in Mims welcomes visitors to a replica of their home, rebuilt on the original property. Several of their personal effects are on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C.

In looking back at Moore’s life and work, it is abundantly clear he was never motivated by name recognition in the first place. Moore’s goal was singular - his daughter would later remember him saying before his death that “I have endeavored to help the Negro race and laid my life on the altar.”

One Hundred Years Ago, Einstein's Theory of General Relativity Baffled the Press and the Public

Smithsonian Magazine

When the year 1919 began, Albert Einstein was virtually unknown beyond the world of professional physicists. By year’s end, however, he was a household name around the globe. November 1919 was the month that made Einstein into “Einstein,” the beginning of the former patent clerk’s transformation into an international celebrity.

On November 6, scientists at a joint meeting of the Royal Society of London and the Royal Astronomical Society announced that measurements taken during a total solar eclipse earlier that year supported Einstein’s bold new theory of gravity, known as general relativity. Newspapers enthusiastically picked up the story. “Revolution in Science,” blared the Times of London; “Newtonian Ideas Overthrown.” A few days later, the New York Times weighed in with a six-tiered headline—rare indeed for a science story. “Lights All Askew in the Heavens,” trumpeted the main headline. A bit further down: “Einstein’s Theory Triumphs” and “Stars Not Where They Seemed, or Were Calculated to Be, But Nobody Need Worry.”

The spotlight would remain on Einstein and his seemingly impenetrable theory for the rest of his life. As he remarked to a friend in 1920: “At present every coachman and every waiter argues about whether or not the relativity theory is correct.” In Berlin, members of the public crowded into the classroom where Einstein was teaching, to the dismay of tuition-paying students. And then he conquered the United States. In 1921, when the steamship Rotterdam arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey, with Einstein on board, it was met by some 5,000 cheering New Yorkers. Reporters in small boats pulled alongside the ship even before it had docked. An even more over-the-top episode played out a decade later, when Einstein arrived in San Diego, en route to the California Institute of Technology where he had been offered a temporary position. Einstein was met at the pier not only by the usual throng of reporters, but by rows of cheering students chanting the scientist’s name.

The intense public reaction to Einstein has long intrigued historians. Movie stars have always attracted adulation, of course, and 40 years later the world would find itself immersed in Beatlemania—but a physicist? Nothing like it had ever been seen before, and—with the exception of Stephen Hawking, who experienced a milder form of celebrity—it hasn’t been seen since, either.

Over the years, a standard, if incomplete, explanation emerged for why the world went mad over a physicist and his work: In the wake of a horrific global war—a conflict that drove the downfall of empires and left millions dead—people were desperate for something uplifting, something that rose above nationalism and politics. Einstein, born in Germany, was a Swiss citizen living in Berlin, Jewish as well as a pacifist, and a theorist whose work had been confirmed by British astronomers. And it wasn’t just any theory, but one which moved, or seemed to move, the stars. After years of trench warfare and the chaos of revolution, Einstein’s theory arrived like a bolt of lightning, jolting the world back to life.

Mythological as this story sounds, it contains a grain of truth, says Diana Kormos-Buchwald, a historian of science at Caltech and director and general editor of the Einstein Papers Project. In the immediate aftermath of the war, the idea of a German scientist—a German anything—receiving acclaim from the British was astonishing.

“German scientists were in limbo,” Kormos-Buchwald says. “They weren’t invited to international conferences; they weren’t allowed to publish in international journals. And it’s remarkable how Einstein steps in to fix this problem. He uses his fame to repair contact between scientists from former enemy countries.”

Headline in the New York Times about Einstein's newly confirmed general theory of relativity, November 10, 1919. (The New York Times Archives / Dan Falk)

At that time, Kormos-Buchwald adds, the idea of a famous scientist was unusual. Marie Curie was one of the few widely known names. (She already had two Nobel Prizes by 1911; Einstein wouldn’t receive his until 1922, when he was retroactively awarded the 1921 prize.) However, Britain also had something of a celebrity-scientist in the form of Sir Arthur Eddington, the astronomer who organized the eclipse expeditions to test general relativity. Eddington was a Quaker and, like Einstein, had been opposed to the war. Even more crucially, he was one of the few people in England who understood Einstein’s theory, and he recognized the importance of putting it to the test.

“Eddington was the great popularizer of science in Great Britain. He was the Carl Sagan of his time,” says Marcia Bartusiak, science author and professor in MIT’s graduate Science Writing program. “He played a key role in getting the media’s attention focused on Einstein.”

It also helped Einstein’s fame that his new theory was presented as a kind of cage match between himself and Isaac Newton, whose portrait hung in the very room at the Royal Society where the triumph of Einstein’s theory was announced.

“Everyone knows the trope of the apple supposedly falling on Newton’s head,” Bartusiak says. “And here was a German scientist who was said to be overturning Newton, and making a prediction that was actually tested—that was an astounding moment.”

Much was made of the supposed incomprehensibility of the new theory. In the New York Times story of November 10, 1919—the “Lights All Askew” edition—the reporter paraphrases J.J. Thompson, president of the Royal Society, as stating that the details of Einstein’s theory “are purely mathematical and can only be expressed in strictly scientific terms” and that it was “useless to endeavor to detail them for the man in the street.” The same article quotes an astronomer, W.J.S. Lockyer, as saying that the new theory’s equations, “while very important,” do not “affect anything on this earth. They do not personally concern ordinary human beings; only astronomers are affected.” (If Lockyer could have time travelled to the present day, he would discover a world in which millions of ordinary people routinely navigate with the help of GPS satellites, which depend directly on both special and general relativity.)

The idea that a handful of clever scientists might understand Einstein’s theory, but that such comprehension was off limits to mere mortals, did not sit well with everyone—including the New York Times’ own staff. The day after the “Lights All Askew” article ran, an editorial asked what “common folk” ought to make of Einstein’s theory, a set of ideas that “cannot be put in language comprehensible to them.” They conclude with a mix of frustration and sarcasm: “If we gave it up, no harm would be done, for we are used to that, but to have the giving up done for us is—well, just a little irritating.”

A portrait of Albert Einstein published on the cover of Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung on December 14, 1919. (Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

Things were not going any smoother in London, where the editors of the Times confessed their own ignorance but also placed some of the blame on the scientists themselves. “We cannot profess to follow the details and implications of the new theory with complete certainty,” they wrote on November 28, “but we are consoled by the reflection that the protagonists of the debate, including even Dr. Einstein himself, find no little difficulty in making their meaning clear.”

Readers of that day’s Times were treated to Einstein’s own explanation, translated from German. It ran under the headline, “Einstein on his Theory.” The most comprehensible paragraph was the final one, in which Einstein jokes about his own “relative” identity: “Today in Germany I am called a German man of science, and in England I am represented as a Swiss Jew. If I come to be regarded as a bête noire, the descriptions will be reversed, and I shall become a Swiss Jew for the Germans, and a German man of science for the English.”

Not to be outdone, the New York Times sent a correspondent to pay a visit to Einstein himself, in Berlin, finding him “on the top floor of a fashionable apartment house.” Again they try—both the reporter and Einstein—to illuminate the theory. Asked why it’s called “relativity,” Einstein explains how Galileo and Newton envisioned the workings of the universe and how a new vision is required, one in which time and space are seen as relative. But the best part was once again the ending, in which the reporter lays down a now-clichéd anecdote which would have been fresh in 1919: “Just then an old grandfather’s clock in the library chimed the mid-day hour, reminding Dr. Einstein of some appointment in another part of Berlin, and old-fashioned time and space enforced their wonted absolute tyranny over him who had spoken so contemptuously of their existence, thus terminating the interview.”

Efforts to “explain Einstein” continued. Eddington wrote about relativity in the Illustrated London News and, eventually, in popular books. So too did luminaries like Max Planck, Wolfgang Pauli and Bertrand Russell. Einstein wrote a book too, and it remains in print to this day. But in the popular imagination, relativity remained deeply mysterious. A decade after the first flurry of media interest, an editorial in the New York Times lamented: “Countless textbooks on relativity have made a brave try at explaining and have succeeded at most in conveying a vague sense of analogy or metaphor, dimly perceptible while one follows the argument painfully word by word and lost when one lifts his mind from the text.”

Eventually, the alleged incomprehensibility of Einstein’s theory became a selling point, a feature rather than a bug. Crowds continued to follow Einstein, not, presumably, to gain an understanding of curved space-time, but rather to be in the presence of someone who apparently did understand such lofty matters. This reverence explains, perhaps, why so many people showed up to hear Einstein deliver a series of lectures in Princeton in 1921. The classroom was filled to overflowing—at least at the beginning, Kormos-Buchwald says. “The first day there were 400 people there, including ladies with fur collars in the front row. And on the second day there were 200, and on the third day there were 50, and on the fourth day the room was almost empty.”

Original caption: From the report of Sir Arthur Eddington on the expedition to verify Albert Einstein's prediction of the bending of light around the sun. (Public Domain)

If the average citizen couldn’t understand what Einstein was saying, why were so many people keen on hearing him say it? Bartisuak suggests that Einstein can be seen as the modern equivalent of the ancient shaman who would have mesmerized our Paleolithic ancestors. The shaman “supposedly had an inside track on the purpose and nature of the universe,” she says. “Through the ages, there has been this fascination with people that you think have this secret knowledge of how the world works. And Einstein was the ultimate symbol of that.”

The physicist and science historian Abraham Pais has described Einstein similarly. To many people, Einstein appeared as “a new Moses come down from the mountain to bring the law and a new Joshua controlling the motion of the heavenly bodies.” He was the “divine man” of the 20th century.

Einstein’s appearance and personality helped. Here was a jovial, mild-mannered man with deep-set eyes, who spoke just a little English. (He did not yet have the wild hair of his later years, though that would come soon enough.) With his violin case and sandals—he famously shunned socks—Einstein was just eccentric enough to delight American journalists. (He would later joke that his profession was “photographer’s model.”) According to Walter Isaacson’s 2007 biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe, the reporters who caught up with the scientist “were thrilled that the newly discovered genius was not a drab or reserved academic” but rather “a charming 40-year-old, just passing from handsome to distinctive, with a wild burst of hair, rumpled informality, twinkling eyes, and a willingness to dispense wisdom in bite-sized quips and quotes.”

The timing of Einstein’s new theory helped heighten his fame as well. Newspapers were flourishing in the early 20th century, and the advent of black-and-white newsreels had just begun to make it possible to be an international celebrity. As Thomas Levenson notes in his 2004 book Einstein in Berlin, Einstein knew how to play to the cameras. “Even better, and usefully in the silent film era, he was not expected to be intelligible. ... He was the first scientist (and in many ways the last as well) to achieve truly iconic status, at least in part because for the first time the means existed to create such idols.”

Einstein, like many celebrities, had a love-hate relationship with fame, which he once described as “dazzling misery.” The constant intrusions into his private life were an annoyance, but he was happy to use his fame to draw attention to a variety of causes that he supported, including Zionism, pacifism, nuclear disarmament and racial equality.

A portrait of Albert Einstein taken at Princeton in 1935. (Sophie Delar)

Not everyone loved Einstein, of course. Various groups had their own distinctive reasons for objecting to Einstein and his work, John Stachel, the founding editor of the Einstein Papers Project and a professor at Boston University, told me in a 2004 interview. Some American philosophers rejected relativity for being too abstract and metaphysical, while some Russian thinkers felt it was too idealistic. Some simply hated Einstein because he was a Jew.

“Many of those who opposed Einstein on philosophical grounds were also anti-Semites, and later on, adherents of what the Nazis called Deutsche Physic—‘German physics’—which was ‘good’ Aryan physics, as opposed to this Jüdisch Spitzfindigkeit—‘Jewish subtlety,’ Stachel says. “So one gets complicated mixtures, but the myth that everybody loved Einstein is certainly not true. He was hated as a Jew, as a pacifist, as a socialist [and] as a relativist, at least.” As the 1920s wore on, with anti-Semitism on the rise, death threats against Einstein became routine. Fortunately he was on a working holiday in the United States when Hitler came to power. He would never return to the country where he had done his greatest work.

For the rest of his life, Einstein remained mystified by the relentless attention paid to him. As he wrote in 1942, “I never understood why the theory of relativity with its concepts and problems so far removed from practical life should for so long have met with a lively, or indeed passionate, resonance among broad circles of the public. ... What could have produced this great and persistent psychological effect? I never yet heard a truly convincing answer to this question.”

Today, a full century after his ascent to superstardom, the Einstein phenomenon continues to resist a complete explanation. The theoretical physicist burst onto the world stage in 1919, expounding a theory that was, as the newspapers put it, “dimly perceptible.” Yet in spite of the theory’s opacity—or, very likely, because of it—Einstein was hoisted onto the lofty pedestal where he remains to this day. The public may not have understood the equations, but those equations were said to reveal a new truth about the universe, and that, it seems, was enough.

Prehistoric Angolan “Sea Monsters” Take Up Residence at the Natural History Museum

Smithsonian Magazine

Ravaged by decades of civil war, the southwestern African country of Angola has spent the years following its 2002 peace accords in search of a cohesive sense of national pride, endeavoring to cultivate a distinctive cultural presence on the world stage. As humanitarian campaigns work to get displaced families back on their feet and infrastructure up to date, paleontologists are providing Angola with an unlikely source of excitement and unity: the fossils of massive “sea monsters” that roamed the oceans of the Cretaceous period. Today, Projecto Paleoangola, a multinational enterprise involving scientists from the U.S., Portugal, the Netherlands and of course Angola itself, is hard at work studying the region’s unique fossil record.

The beautifully preserved “sea monsters” of Angola are the focus of a new exhibition opening today at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. The impressive display will give visitors a small but potent taste of the paleontological work—groundbreaking in every sense of the word—now unfolding across the country.

When the Cretaceous began nearly 150 million years ago, the south Atlantic Ocean, as we know it today, did not exist. The supercontinent of Pangaea was just beginning to break apart, and present-day South America was still firmly wedged into the recess of present-day Africa’s western coast. As tens of millions of years elapsed and a gap began to yawn between the two, the Atlantic Ocean expanded southward, bringing with it all manner of exotic marine lifeforms formerly confined to the Northern Hemisphere.

Trade winds buffeting the young Angolan shoreline made conditions in its waters particularly conducive to sea life, creating a salubrious upwelling effect that saw deep-water nutrients bubble to the surface. Great long-necked predators called mosasaurs migrated to the new habitat in droves, and their fossilized remains today litter the easily accessible sedimentary rock of uplifted Angolan crust.

Image by Donny Bajohr. The 72-million-year-old giant Euclastes sea turtle. (original image)

Image by Donny Bajohr. Detail of the cast of Euclastes sea turtle, fossils of which were excavated from Angola's coastal cliffs. (original image)

It was in 2005 that Texas-based paleontologists Louis Jacobs and Michael Polcyn first set foot in the country. The two Americans had planned the trip alongside Dutch marine vertebrate expert Anne Schulp and Portuguese paleontologist Octávio Mateus, both of whom they had encountered at technical conferences in the preceding two years (in the Netherlands and Brazil, respectively). The aim of the quartet was to secure the permission of Angolan researchers to conduct wide-ranging fossil excavations.

As it turned out, Angola’s scientists were thrilled.

“We went to the geology department at Agostinho Neto University,” Jacobs recalls, “and we walked in and said, ‘We would like to do a project with you.’ And they said, ‘Good, we want to do it.’ That’s all it took. Just cold off the street.”

With the backing of Angolan researchers, the international team went on to secure multiple grants, and the team’s fieldwork soon ballooned to spectacular proportions.

“Since 2005, we’ve had time now to prospect from the very northern part of the country, up in the province of Cabinda, all the way down to the south,” Polcyn says. “In that transect, you have a lot of different slices of geological time. We not only have these marine Cretaceous sediments, we have much younger material in the north.” The team even got their hands on the premolar tooth of a never-before-seen early African primate, a species they are excited to comment on further in the months and years ahead.

The easily accessible sedimentary rock along modern Angola's sea cliffs is littered with fossilized remains of the life that thrived along the coast tens of millions of years ago. (Projecto Paleoangola)

As its name suggests, the new “Sea Monsters Unearthed” Smithsonian show centers on the team’s aquatic finds, which were far too numerous for all to be included. The fossils showcased were culled from two particularly rich locations. Set against an accurately illustrated Cretaceous mural backdrop, the centerpiece is a massive and remarkably well preserved 72-million-year-old mosasaur skeleton, whose 23-foot cast will fill the exhibition space—and the imagination of whoever takes it in.

What Polcyn says is most remarkable about this prognathodon skeleton is the fact that three other sets of mosasaur remains were found within its stomach cavity—including one belonging to a member of its own species, the first-ever evidence of full-on mosasaur cannibalism. These fossilized remains offer unprecedented insights into mosasaur feeding habits, about which little was previously known.

“The strange thing is,” Polcyn says, “it’s primarily heads. This guy was eating heads.”

Visitors will get to see the cranial remains taken from the big mosasaur’s gut in a separate display case. “There’s not a lot of calories in that, which indicates [Prognathodon kianda] may have been a scavenger.”

Exhibition-goers can also look forward to seeing the picked-at bones of a plesiosaur and the skull and lower jaw of a prehistoric turtle species.

In time, the bones on view at the Smithsonian will return to Angola, where Jacobs and Polcyn hope they will be exhibited permanently along with the other outstanding discoveries of the ongoing Paleoangola movement, which in addition to producing astonishing results has given several aspiring Angolan paleontologists their first exposure to the rigors of fieldwork.

An artist's rendering of Angola's Cretaceous seas, where droves of large, carnivorous marine reptiles thrived on upwelling nutrients. (Karen Carr Studios, Inc.)

While getting the chance to raise awareness of these remarkable Angolan Cretaceous deposits through the apparatus of the Smithsonian is no doubt exciting for Jacobs, Polcyn and their team, the American scientists are quick to point out that this is after all Angola’s narrative. Their aim is simply to get that story out in the world—cementing Angola’s rightful status as a hotbed of incredible paleontological activity.

Jacobs has witnessed firsthand a slow but steady pivot toward the sciences in Angola’s national agenda, one which he is eager to see continue in the years to come. “When we started,” he recalls, “it wasn’t long after the peace treaty was signed, and everybody in the earth sciences was after oil.” In the years since, though, “you see a trend where there’s more of a general appreciation of knowledge, and a maturing of ideas.”

“Sea Monsters Unearthed: Life in Angola’s Ancient Seas” will remain on view at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History through 2020.

How Eating Poop Makes These Mole-Rats More Motherly

Smithsonian Magazine

In the animal kingdom, "it takes a village to raise a child" is often the norm. Rather than putting the burden on one pair of parents, often an entire social group of animals will care for newborns. Marmoset moms hand off their young to other males, who spend so much energy carrying around the babies that they lose weight. Subordinate wolves and wild hogs that have lost their own litters nurse other pups. Even ducks aren’t shy about letting someone else watch their ducklings for a bit while they grab a quick mouthful of algae.

This behavior, called alloparenting, likely has evolutionary advantages that we don't fully understand (it occurs in 9 percent of the known species of birds and around 3 percent of mammals). But we do know that those urges to lick and feed someone else’s baby are nurtured along by caregiving lessons learned early in life and a few squirts of affection-inducing hormones like prolactin, oxytocin and estrogens, though researchers haven’t figured out exactly how the system works. Add to the list of questions about alloparenting the behavior of the naked mole-rat. Members of naked mole-rat colonies take care of babies that aren't their own, despite not being able to produce their own estrogen. Now, new research published in PNAS suggests that they receive estrogen—and their motherly instincts—from a very unusual source: mole-rat feces.

The naked mole-rat, Heterocephalus glaber, is a rodent found in the Horn of Africa that lives in colonies like ants do. In the colony, only one mole-rat, the queen, is sexually mature, while subordinate handmaidens take care of her offspring, licking them, building nests, and keeping them warm. But that system baffled researchers at the veterinary school at Azabu University in Sagamihara, Japan.

Azabu researcher Kazutaka Mogi writes in an email that his team had studied alloparenting in mice, where non-moms babysit other pups. The babysitters' maternal instincts seem to be strengthened by estrogen, which the mice produce in their ovaries (just like human women). It's a virtuous cycle in which the more alloparenting a mouse does, the better she gets at it—and the more her hormones push her to do it. But naked mole rats engage in alloparenting despite having no mature sex organs. "We were surprised to hear this phenomenon and decided to investigate this subject,” he writes.

That's how the researchers stumbled onto the revolting discovery. Coprophagy—eating feces—is common among naked mole-rats. The team wondered if the subordinates could be receiving not just nutrients but hormones from eating the queen mole-rat's poop.

Researchers fed the naked mole-rats poop pellets from a pregnant queen. They then tested their estrogen levels and their response to the yipping sounds of naked mole-rat pups. The study showed that the estrogen levels in the would-be alloparents gradually rose throughout the queen’s pregnancy, peaking after the queen gave birth to her litter and was done feeding them, the time when the subordinate females more or less take over care of the young. The study showed that after eating the hormone-laced feces, the subordinates became super-responsive to the mewling pups. This poopy hormone transfer represents a previously unknown system of communication between the mole-rats.

Coprophagy is not uncommon in mammals, as many people with a dung-eating dog can attest. In many cases, especially among rabbits and rodents, it’s a normal part of digestion. There are certain nutrients that their guts can’t process in the first pass, so they ingest their own fecal pellets for a second go. Some baby animals, including elephants and hippos, also eat their parent’s caca soon after weaning to help seed their guts with the right intestinal bacteria.

It’s likely that naked mole-rats do both. In their extensive underground colonies, the animals maintain a toilet chamber where feces pellets are deposited. It also serves as a snack room, where they get a second chance to nom on the poo and digest the fibrous roots and tubers that they munch on. Mature mole rats have also been observed pooping directly into the mouths of young pups, which is probably to transfer gut bacteria and to help impart a “colony” smell to the younglings. Each naked mole-rat colony has its own specific odor, and if an intruder doesn’t have the right smell, it will be ripped to shreds.

Mogi says he and his team are unaware of any other mammal—or any creature for that matter—that transfers hormones in this manner. However, in a 2016 paper in eLife, researchers found that carpenter ants exchange food, pheromones and hormones via trophallaxis, which is essentially throwing up in one another’s mouths. It’s possible that other social insect species engage in similarly revolting forms of communication.

It’s possible that other mammals transfer hormones via feces, though it wouldn’t be surprising if naked mole-rats are the only ones: The strange animal that National Geographic describes as “bratwurst with teeth” is unique in almost every way. Besides having a society set up more like bees than mice (one of only two mammals to live in such a way), they live in underground colonies and are functionally blind. And they are indeed naked, with just a few hundred hard-to-see guide hairs and giant, sensitive buckteeth to help them navigate their dark labyrinths. While most rodents of a similar size live two to three years, naked mole-rats can live up to 30, and are thought to be almost completely immune to cancer, which has made them popular research animals. They can also survive up to 18 minutes without oxygen and are essentially cold-blooded, unusual for a mammal, and must cuddle together to regulate their body temperature in cold weather.

“I think it’s funny, on the surface they look different but you don’t think about all the cool things we know about them,” say Kenton Kerns, assistant curator of small mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, who deals with the mole-rats on a daily basis and is preparing to unveil a new colony. “And it seems like once a year if not more there’s cool new research about them. You know how grade school teachers tell children we shouldn’t cut down the rainforest because it might have the next new medicine or scientific breakthrough? Mole rats are like that, but people just slide by their exhibit saying ‘I don’t like rats or mice.’”

Diana Sarko has been studying naked mole-rats for years and currently maintains two colonies at Southern Illinois University ruled over by "Queen Cersei" and "Queen Daenerys." Her main research involves their giant teeth, which are essentially a sense organ—though her recent work has found they have the same bite strength as a lion. Sarko regularly sees alloparenting behavior taking place with subordinates moving pups around and snuggling them in the warm sleeping chambers. She isn’t surprised by the idea that hormones could be transferred via feces, though she hasn’t witnessed much poo-munching in her colonies since the food the lab animals get, like sweet potatoes, fruits and other vegetables, might be easier to digest than wild tubers.

In fact, hormones may regulate other activities within mole-rat colonies. Just last year one of Sarko’s queens was killed by a usurper.

Typically, a mole-rat queen can expect to sit on her throne into her twenties without an uprising, so the revolution in the lab colony was unexpected. “Once established, a queen usually stays put,” Sarko says. “She was overthrown after having a litter so she was somewhat weakened but otherwise she seemed healthy. I was shocked.”

Now, Sarko and her team are examining hormone levels, including the stress hormone cortisol, collected in their weekly poo samplings in the months leading up to the coup to see if hormonal changes were happening throughout the colony before the overthrow of their queen.

It doesn't end there when it comes to mole-rats and hormones. Mogi says the Azabu team has preliminary evidence that the queen has a way to influence the reproductive success of the tiny handful of sexually mature males allowed to breed with her. It’s not clear yet if it involves feces, urine, vomit, saliva or is just the naked mole-rat version of the come-hither look.

A new 24-hour webcam trained on the National Zoo's colony of naked mole rats goes live on August 31, 2018. Visitors can see the Zoo's new habit for its colony of 17 naked mole rats beginning September 1.

How the Ancestors of Birds Survived the Dino-Killing Asteroid

Smithsonian Magazine

Sixty-six million years ago, nothing seemed more unlikely than the dominance of bipedal apes and flying dinosaurs. Yet here we are.

The Cretaceous was a world of enormous terrestrial dinosaurs, some small mammals, and what we now recognize as the predecessors to modern birds. Some, like Hesperornis, were flightless creatures with a beak full of teeth that lived in the ocean. Others, like Icthyornis, were flying fish-eaters. Most diverse of all were the group of birdlike animals called Enantiornithines, or “opposite birds” (named because some of their bones are organized in the opposite manner as modern birds). They lived all across the globe, in over 80 different taxa, many of them adapted for life in the trees.

Not a single one of those species made it past the Chicxulub asteroid that landed on the Yucatan Peninsula.

The asteroid’s impact created a blast one billion times stronger than the bomb at Hiroshima—but that was only the start of the devastation. What followed were global wildfires, years of nuclear winter and acid rain. Amazingly, around 30 percent of organisms did manage to survive, and those survivors included the ancestors to all modern life we see today.

A new study speculates that the trick might have required being able to live on the ground. The study, published today in Current Biology, looks at evidence for widespread forest disappearance and the emergence of what we know now as modern birds. The researchers postulate that because forests were wiped out globally, birdlike creatures that required those perches for survival were forced into extinction, while the ground-dwellers survived.

“What I like about this paper is that it puts down a chip, a marker,” says David Jablonski, a professor of evolution and paleontology at the University of Chicago who wasn’t involved in the study. “Here’s a hypothesis and now it can be more fully explored.”

For the authors of the new paper, coming up with the hypothesis in the first place involved assembling a team of specialists from across the world of paleontology, including those who study ancient pollen and birds. First, the paleobotanists, who studied rock samples from North Dakota. Nestled inside the dusty fragments are millions of microfossils—preserved remains of pollen spores, leaf litter, wood and other debris.

“Because of their very small size and extreme abundance in sediments (around 100,000 per gram of rock), it is possible to study the composition of the flora and its change through time with very high precision, as you can sample the rock record centimeter by centimeter,” said Antoine Bercovici, a paleobotanist at the Smithsonian Institution and an author on the new paper, by email.

Ferns sprouting up in a fire-damaged forest. (Regan Dunn / The Field Museum)

Those microfossils from the boundary between the Cretaceous (the last geologic period of the dinosaurs) and the Paleogene (the period immediately following the asteroid) show a very particular pattern known as the “fern spike.” After millennia of spores from a wide variety of plants, suddenly 70 to 90 percent of the microfossil flora record comes from ferns. That’s because ferns reproduce with spores rather than seeds, which are much smaller and more easily spread through the wind, says Regan Dunn, another author on the paper and a paleobotanist at the Field Museum.

“When there’s a big forest fire or a volcanic eruption today, oftentimes the first things that come back are the ferns,” Dunn says. That spike in fern growth is apparent across the world, and it suggests that the ferns were monopolizing a landscape devoid of trees and other plant life. As far as the scientists can tell, it would’ve been a fairly gloomy world, between the ash-darkened skies and the unseasonal cold. But there was enough plant life left for vertebrates to eek out a living.

“When you destroy the environment, that affects every other living organism. You also see a decline in the insect faunas, and we know that because you can look at fossil leaves and see insect damage on them,” Dunn says. “The plants feed the bugs, and the bugs feed the birds, and the birds feed the mammals, so when you take the base out of that, you have massive repercussions.”

Daniel Field, a paleontologist at the UK’s University of Bath, has long been interested in the question of how a devastating mass extinction that occurred millions of years ago could ultimately produce the breathtaking diversity of bird species we see today. With this study, he and his team begin to piece together the answer. Using statistical analysis of the fossil record, combined with data on the forests, the researchers concluded that non-arboreal birds—those who didn’t live in trees—were much more likely to survive.

That’s not to say a ground-dwelling lifestyle was the only thing required for making it out of the mass extinction. Body size and diet likely had something to do with it, as well as other factors.

After all, there were dinosaurs the size of small birds who didn’t make it out—and researchers aren't yet sure why. “You’ve got to explain an extinction where the big dinosaurs went out, but the crocodiles didn’t. Where the mosasaurus went out, but sea turtles didn’t,” Jablonski says. “The fascinating thing to contemplate is, how do you have [a mass extinction] that removes 60 percent of organisms, but not 100 percent? It’s got to be really severe, but on the other hand, some of them are still standing.”

The next steps to filling in the picture will be figuring out what exactly happened to forests—the researchers currently think it took at least 1,000 years before they began to recover—and how everything else survived in the meantime. Birds diversified rapidly shortly after the extinction event, but scientists still aren’t sure exactly when it happened and how it varied among species.

The importance of piecing together this period of the past is also critical for predicting the future. The researchers say what happened to birds at the end of the Cretaceous could help us understand how human-made climate change might affect today’s birds. “What these kinds of studies show is that ecosystems, although remarkably resilient, really do have breaking points,” Jablonski says. “And that history should be considered extremely sobering.”

This Former Noma Chef Is Revamping the School Cafeteria

Smithsonian Magazine

Dan Giusti trained at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and spent three years as head chef of Noma, the cutting-edge Copenhagen restaurant that’s earned two Michelin stars and is considered by many the best restaurant in the world. Tables fill up months in advance, and lunch can easily run $500.

But now, Giusti is focused on cooking for a slightly different clientele: schoolkids. His program, Brigaid, brings professional chefs into public school cafeterias to create made-from-scratch menus. Brigaid launched in the New London, Connecticut school system in 2016 and expanded to the Bronx last fall.

We talked to Giusti about what he’s learned since the program started, how he hopes to change kids’ attitudes towards food, and why butternut squash soup is no longer on the menu.

What did you see as the biggest problem with school food when you decided to start Brigaid?

There’s this misconception—people think that [the problem with] school food is all about the nutrition. But all school food has to meet standard nutritional guidelines. The real problem is that the kids aren’t eating the food because it’s not tasty. In a nutshell, the idea was that the food doesn’t taste good, there’s not enough thought put into the food itself. If you could make food consistently that met the nutritional guidelines and the budget and that tasted very good to the kids, then you would be in great shape.

What are some of the changes you have made to the menu?

We took all those processed things—chicken nuggets, chicken tenders—and we put on raw meats we cook from scratch, so that we can control how they’re cooked and seasoned. We make all our own pasta sauces. We make a lot of baked goods ourselves. You’re not just appealing to a kids’ tastes when you’re cooking—kids can smell things that are happening. We serve them warm; it’s just a different experience.

Beef enchiladas with salsa roja, stewed black beans, kale caesar salad and fresh cut cantaloupe (Brigaid)

What is something that has been a hit with the kids?

It was such a simple thing, but we saw the consumption of fruit just spike up because we went from serving whole pieces of fruit that were not really good quality—kids weren’t interested in eating a whole apple that wasn’t very nice, or fruit that was frozen or canned—to serving fresh fruit that’s been cut daily. That really encouraged kids to eat fruit, which they really weren’t eating. Which was really strange because kids—most people—eat fruit. The baked goods we do, kids love. Certainly things that are more traditional like pizza—we make our own dough, and kids really love the pizza that we make. They recognize that a good amount of work goes into it. We do composed salads where we assemble a salad like a chicken Caesar or Cobb, and they just take it and put dressing on it. In a school of 700 or 800 kids we can sell 100 in a day. We like our kids wanting to eat salads, so that’s really cool.

What were some notable failures?

Things that didn’t work? There are tons. It’s a challenge. When we started, we had lots of kids inquire about fish. We managed to create a relationship with a purveyor out of Boston who supplied us with fresh fish. It was a pretty amazing thing, but just super-polarizing. A small percentage of kids enjoyed it, but a good portion of kids when they think fish, they think ‘fish sticks’—some kind of processed fish that’s breaded and fried. We’re not going to do that. If we revisit it, maybe there’s a way to mimic a fish stick.

We’ve done soups. Some soups are successful. But one soup was butternut squash that was pureed. Kids don’t want pureed soup. You find out when a kid spits it out on the ground.

A typical day of lunch offerings: Two hot entrées (chicken curry with ginger rice and roasted cauliflower or ravioli with marinara sauce, a garlic roll and steamed broccoli), two types of sandwiches (BLT and tuna), cold entrée salads (chicken caesar and cold lo mein), kale caesar side salad, and various fresh cut fruits (pineapple and honeydew melon). (Brigaid)

What was one of your unexpected challenges?

The challenging thing is not letting your own tastes get in the way. We made a lot of changes we thought were appropriate, and it made sense to take away processed foods. But sometimes those changes are deterrents. Taking a chicken patty off the menu that kids really enjoyed, because it’s a processed product, could really hurt you in terms of getting food that children will eat.

The biggest challenge, honestly, is that there’s a big discrepancy about the perception of what 'good' food is between parents, administrators, teachers, etc. People have this idea in their head, everything should be organic, everything should be this or that. But sometimes we serve very basic things because we want to make the kids feel comfortable, and sometimes people are disappointed about that, almost underwhelmed. It’s not about 'look what we got the kids to eat!' Lunch should be the last place that kids feel stressed out. We want to make sure the kids are eating, and that they feel good about it. If that’s happening, then we can use that environment to get them to try new things.

Public schools don't have the budgets of high-end restaurants. How do you keep costs down?

Well, it's a lot of experimenting. You kind of have to rethink how you cook. You need to find less expensive ways to develop and add flavor. For example, as a chef, you are very accustomed to using a lot of fresh herbs. We cannot really afford that, so instead we use a lot of dried spices and herbs.

How do you hope the program might change kids’ relationships to food in the long run?

Oftentimes, people are trying to get kids to really think deeply about things regarding food. Seasonal, local—that’s fine. But kids’ appetites for [learning about food culture] might not be there just yet. You need to sell them on the food first. Our idea is slowly but surely introducing new items so they trust you and they’ll continue to try things. We’ve seen this already with the kids that we’ve been with for three years. You can see that their attitude towards trying things or not trying things is much different than what we saw when we first came. They’re just experienced with eating.

The goal on a day-to-day basis is to make these kids feel comfortable and really provide them with a meal that makes them feel good and helps them get through their day.

Caribbean chicken with rice and beans, roasted sweet potatoes, kale caesar salad and orange segments (Brigaid)

You’re hiring trained chefs. What’s the appeal to them of working in a school cafeteria?

The initial appeal is that it’s weekends off, it might be a shorter day, you might have holidays off, which is a huge change from working in the hotel or restaurant industry. That’s a benefit, but by no means do we want people choosing this job solely for that reason. Chefs want a challenge—it’s their personality. To come day in and day out and solve a problem that’s very complicated.

What’s the difference between cooking for schoolkids and cooking for the kind of people who eat at restaurants like Noma?

I think the biggest difference is kids are honest. They have no reason not to be honest. They’ll tell you what they think, and sometimes they don’t have much of a filter and they say things that are difficult to hear. If you can get them to articulate why, you can really use that feedback. You can be upset about it, or take that and make improvements.

Adults, especially in a place like Noma, where people are waiting months to eat, it’s hard to get an honest opinion. They’ve waited all this time to eat in a restaurant, they’re there with their family, they don’t want to be the one who didn’t like the food because it’s almost like they feel they didn’t ‘get it.’

Do you remember eating in your own school cafeteria? Did you have any favorite dishes? Anything you hated?

I don’t even remember eating at all. I think it’s because for me, lunch was just a break period. At that time in my life food was very important—I came from an Italian family, I was used to eating well, and I was working in a restaurant full-time. But lunch was just a break period to talk to your friends. That’s indicative. If you don’t feel like food’s being prepared in a thoughtful manner, it’s just a break period.

I was fortunate to have access to good food outside of school. But there are a lot of kids who are coming to the cafeteria who don’t have access to good food—or food—outside of that lunch. So it’s even more imperative that we put as much of our thought into it as we can.

Hans Asperger ‘Actively Assisted’ Nazi Eugenics Policies, Study Claims

Smithsonian Magazine

It has been said that Johann "Hans" Asperger, the pioneering Austrian physician who first described the profile of distinct psychological characteristics that later became known as Asperger syndrome in a workship in 1938, resisted the Nazi’s brutal “euthanasia” program by refusing to hand his patients over to officials. But as Kate Connolly reports for the Guardian, an expansive study published in the journal Molecular Autism has found that Asperger played an active—if complex—role in the regime, even sending his patients to near-certain death at a notorious euthanasia clinic.

The new study joins previous research into Asperger's connection with the Nazis, including work led by Fred Volkmar of the Yale Child Study Center and John Donvan and Caren Zucker, authors of In a Different Key. This latest effort is the product of eight years of research by historian Herwig Czech of the Medical University of Vienna, who pored through Asperger’s personnel files, assessments by Nazi authorities and medical case records, among other documentary evidence.

Nazi Germany’s “euthanasia program,” which began approximately two years before the genocide of European Jews, targeted people with psychiatric, neurological or physical disabilities who were said to be a genetic and financial drain on the German state, and therefore “unworthy of life,” according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It has been estimated that 200,000 adults and children were murdered in the name of this policy.

The goal of Czech’s research was to re-evaluate a narrative that emerged in the years after WWII, which trumpeted Asperger as an opponent of the euthanasia program. The strongest claim supporting this view, the paper states, alleges that the Gestapo twice tried to arrest Asperger because he did not report patients with certain “deficiencies.” But, Czech notes, the “only known source for this claim is Asperger himself, who mentioned the incident in 1962 at his inauguration as the Vienna chair of pediatrics” and during a 1974 interview.

In fact, Czech found evidence that Asperger referred children to the notorious Am Spiegelgrund clinic, a euthanasia facility where 772 children are said to have been killed. One of these patients was a toddler named Herta Schreiber, who began to exhibit signs of disturbed mental and physical development after contracting encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain commonly caused by a viral infection.

“At home the child must be an unbearable burden to the mother, who has to care for five healthy children,” Asperger wrote in his diagnostic report, according to the study. “Permanent placement at Spiegelgrund seems absolutely necessary.”

Schreiber was sent to Spiegelgrund, where she died three months later of pneumonia, the most common cause of death at the clinic, which routinely induced the illness in its patients by administering barbiturates over a long period of time.

Did Asperger know what was going on at this clandestine killing facility? “While the euthanasia killings at Spiegelgrund (as elsewhere) were officially a secret, and parents were routinely deceived about the true nature of the institution and the fate awaiting their children, rumors nevertheless abounded, and Asperger was in an exceptional position to know the truth,” Czech writes.

The historian also puts forth damning evidence to suggest that Asperger expressed measured support for Nazi plans to forcibly sterilize people considered “abnormal.”

“In the new Germany, we physicians have assumed an abundance of new responsibilities in addition to our old ones,” the physician wrote in a 1939 publication, according to Czech. “I do not need to elaborate on the enormous dedicated work being performed in terms of positive, supporting measures. But we all know that we also have to carry out restrictive measures … We must ensure that the diseased who would transmit their diseases to remote generations, to the detriment of the individual and of the Volk, are stopped from transmitting their diseased hereditary material.”

While Czech writes there is "scant direct evidence" whether Asperger shared the Nazis’ anti-Semitic views, the historian argues that Asperger willingly benefited from the anti-Semitic atmosphere permeating Austria. He joined the Vienna University Children’s Clinic in 1931, under the leadership of Franz Hamburger, one of the country's most prominent Nazis. Much of the Jewish staff was dismissed, and Asperger took charge at the ward, though at the time he had not obtained his specialist doctor qualification in pediatrics.

Czech also points to what he deems Asperger’s “lack of empathy” for the plight of Jewish patients under Nazi rule, along with his tendency to express racial stereotypes. In one report, the physician characterized 9-year-old Marie Klein’s manner being “in contrast to her quite Jewish character." In the 1940 report of an 11-year-old boy, he wrote that the child’s “only problem is that [he] is a Mischling of the first degree”—using a term to refer to people with one Jewish parent. At the time, Czech maintains, including this information in a medical file would have been “extremely dangerous” for the boy.

The new study is accompanied by an editorial by the journal’s editors-in-chief and two reviewers. “We are aware that the article and its publication will be controversial,” Simon Baron-Cohen, co-editor-in-chief of Molecular Autism and a leading autism researcher at the University of Cambridge. “We believe that it deserves to be published in order to expose the truth about how a medical doctor who, for a long time, was seen as only having made valuable contributions to the field of pediatrics and child psychiatry, was guilty of actively assisting the Nazis in their abhorrent eugenics and euthanasia policies. This historical evidence must now be made available."

When Albert Einstein Visited Japan

Smithsonian Magazine

On his first and only visit to Japan, in the late fall of 1922, Albert Einstein, like almost every Westerner who ever set foot there, was wowed by the beauty of the country and the refinement of the culture. “The inner palace courtyard is among the most exquisite architecture I have ever seen,” he wrote in his diary about Kyoto. The Japanese are “pure souls as nowhere else among people.” The populace was equally impressed by their visitor, greeting him on his arrival in Kobe with “great hubbub. Masses of journalists on board the ship. Half-hour interview in the saloon. Disembarkation with huge crowds.” Einstein was, after all, not just the era’s best-known scientist, but arguably the most famous person in the world.

On October 8, 1922, Einstein and his wife, Elsa, had sailed from Marseille aboard the Japanese ocean liner SS Kitano Maru to begin a nearly six-month trip that would take them to Egypt, Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka), Singapore, Hong Kong and China before arriving in Japan on November 17. Their return, aboard the SS Haruna Maru and SS Ormuz, would include extended visits to Palestine and Spain before arriving back in Berlin on March 21, 1923. Throughout his journey, Einstein kept a diary. It will be published in English in its entirety for the first time this May as The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein: The Far East, Palestine and Spain, 1922-1923, with annotations by the Einstein scholar Ze’ev Rosenkranz.

The handwritten diary shows Einstein in an unfamiliar light, as a tourist—in the real, earthbound sense, not (as in his famous thought experiment) riding a light beam through space-time. Never intended for publication, it records his thoughts and impressions as they occurred, unmediated and unfiltered by considerations of how they would affect his image. So we can be sure he was speaking from the heart when he wrote, after being transported by sweating rickshaw runners in Ceylon: “I was very much ashamed of myself for being complicit in such despicable treatment of human beings but couldn’t change anything.” He finds a dinner with “diplomats and other big shots” at the German Embassy in Tokyo “boring and stuffy.” And like any overbooked traveler the great man gets worn out. “I was dead,” he noted after a day of banquets and receptions, “and my corpse rode back to Moji where it was dragged to a children’s Christmas and had to play violin for the children.” We also see some qualities that stamped him as a creature of his time, such as the ingrained assumption of the intellectual superiority of Europeans: “It seems that the Japanese never thought about why it is hotter on their southern islands than on their northern islands. Nor do they seem to have become aware that the height of the sun is dependent on the north-south position. Intellectual needs of this nation seem to be weaker than their artistic ones—natural disposition?”

Einstein’s visit to Japan was the heart of his trip. The island was still an exotic destination for Westerners nearly 70 years after Commodore Matthew Perry sailed his U.S. fleet into Edo Bay, and Einstein was deeply impressed by Japanese culture, even when he didn’t understand it. “Japanese singing remained so entirely incomprehensible to me,” he wrote. “Yesterday I heard another one singing away again to the point of making me dizzy.” He may not have thought much of Japanese science, but he had complimentary things to say about the architecture and art, and he applauded the people for their “earnest respect without a trace of cynicism or even skepticism”—the latter an odd quality to have won praise from Einstein, who was a thoroughgoing skeptic about all forms of received wisdom, from biblical to Newtonian. He also liked Japanese women—actually, he liked the women pretty much everywhere he went—although he was uncharacteristically tight-lipped about what he saw in them: “On the exquisiteness of the Japanese woman, this flower-like creature—I have also remained reticent; for here the common mortal must cede the word to the poet.”

Like any hapless Westerner he tried, with varying success, to adapt to the customs. “Sitting on the floor difficult,” he wrote after a meal at a Japanese inn. He sampled the cuisine, which didn’t always sit well with his digestion or his ethics—“poor creatures,” he said of the roasted lobsters he was served at the “charming establishment.” And, echoing a familiar trope of his era, one in which national and ethnic generalizations were treated as matter-of-fact observations, not politically fraught stereotypes, he found the Japanese, yes, inscrutable. “Among us we see many Japanese, living a lonely existence, studying diligently, smiling in a friendly manner,” he wrote. “No one can fathom the feelings concealed behind this guarded smile.”


Long before he set foot in Japan, Einstein had a strong affinity for the country. “The invitation to Tokyo pleased me a great deal, as I have been interested in the people and culture of East Asia for a long time,” he wrote. For Japan, Einstein’s visit lent a powerful impetus to its effort to be recognized as a modern world power. A year earlier, the same publishing house that arranged Einstein’s visit had brought over the philosopher Bertrand Russell, and asked him to name the three greatest living citizens of the world. “First Einstein, then Lenin,” Russell is said to have replied. “There is nobody else.” That was an interesting pairing, since right around the time Einstein was arriving in Japan to plaudits, the Soviet Union decided that his theory of relativity was, as a headline in the New York Times put it, “‘Bourgeois’ and Dangerous.”

In Japan, thousands packed auditoriums to hear him expound on his theory of relativity for three or four hours at a stretch, in remarks laboriously translated from German. It had been three years since Sir Arthur Eddington confirmed the bending of starlight as it passed by the Sun, a key prediction of Einstein’s 1915 theory of general relativity, which explained gravity as a distortion of space-time. It followed his revolutionary 1905 paper on special relativity, which laid the groundwork for his equation for mass-energy equivalence: E=mc2.

Instantly recognizable with his full head of curly hair, pipe and mustache, he yearned for the occasional snatches of solitude. A journal entry on December 24, about a week before his departure from the country, notes: “Photographed for the 10,000th time...dinner that almost lasts forever...the hostess of the inn is deeply thrilled and, on her knees, bows her head to the ground around 100 times.” It was, presumably, from his own experience as a living legend that he wrote: “Emperor [has] status of a god; for him very uncomfortable.”

Einstein’s German birth and upbringing rendered him suspect in the eyes of some European countries just a few years after the end of the world war—a lecture in Paris scheduled for April was canceled when French academics threatened a boycott over ongoing political disputes—but the Japanese had no dispute with Germany and were welcoming of his ideas.

And for Einstein, Japan was refreshingly free of anti-Semitism. Einstein did not practice his religion, but he made no apologies for it, and had become increasingly involved in Zionism since the war. But in Germany in 1922, being a famous Jewish scientist came with risks. Earlier in the year another prominent German Jew, the foreign minister Walther Rathenau, had been assassinated by right-wing thugs (earning the praise of a Nazi Party member named Adolf Hitler). “I am supposedly among the group of persons being targeted by nationalist assassins,” Einstein wrote to the physicist Max Planck.

Einstein was both charmed and bemused by His Adventures in Japan. (Map by LaTigre)

Einstein had been advised to postpone his trip by physicist Max von Laue who wrote just a few weeks before his departure, “According to reliable news I received yesterday, events could be taking place in November that would make your presence in Europe in December desirable.” Einstein knew what he was referring to. Svante Arrhenius, a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, had also hinted to Einstein that he would be awarded the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics, but Einstein had declined to change his plans. He received official news of the award by telegram in Shanghai on November 13. His diary entry the next day makes no mention of the honor. Instead, he describes the scenery—“Travel upriver along flat, picturesque, yellowish-green illuminated shores”—and the “comical reciprocal staring” between the curious travelers and the surprised residents they encountered.

As it happened, Einstein didn’t even win his Nobel for the work that earned him the most fame—relativity—but for a 1905 paper on the photoelectric effect. And though he worked diligently on new ideas during his trip, writing to Arrhenius: “How conducive to thinking and working the long sea voyage is—a paradisiacal state without correspondence, visits, meetings, and other inventions of the devil!”, his best work was behind him. Now he set himself the task of reconciling the mathematics of the two great macro-scale forces that rule the universe, gravity and electromagnetism—a challenge that, nearly a century later, remains one of the great unsolved problems of science. At various times during his voyage he believed he had succeeded, only to conclude, as he did in January, during a stopover in Malacca, “Discovered large fly in my electricity ointment in the afternoon. A pity.”


Image by Courtesy of NYK Maritime Museum. “A sea voyage is a splendid existence for a ponderer,” wrote Einstein, pictured here with his wife, Elsa, aboard the SS Kitano Maru en route to Japan. (original image)

Image by Sandra Dionisi. (original image)

Einstein spent most of January at sea, arriving at Port Said, Egypt, on February 1, and the next day he was in Jerusalem, which represented a test of his distinctly secular brand of Zionism. Einstein was unmoved by the Wailing Wall, where, he wrote, unkindly, “obtuse ethnic brethren pray loudly, with their faces turned to the wall, bend their bodies to and fro in a swaying motion. Pitiful sight of people with a past but without a present.” But he was impressed by Tel Aviv, a “[m]odern Hebrew city stamped out of the ground with lively economic and intellectual life...The accomplishments by the Jews in but a few years in this city excite the highest admiration....What an incredibly lively people our Jews are!” Jericho represented “a day of unforgettable magnificence. Extraordinary enchantment of this severe, monumental landscape with its dark, elegant Arabian sons in their rags.”

Although Palestine, and later the State of Israel, would remain a passion of Einstein’s for the rest of his life, the impression left by his travel diaries and letters is that Japan interested him more. In an essay published in 1923, he contrasted Western culture with that of Japan, the former characterized by “individualism in the extreme, cut-throat competition exerting one’s utmost energy, feverish laboring to acquire as much luxury and indulgences as possible,” the latter by harmony and equanimity, strong family bonds and public civility enforced by social norms. He ended on a note of warning: “The Japanese rightfully admires the intellectual achievements of the West and immerses himself successfully and with great idealism in the sciences. But let him not thereby forget to keep pure the great attributes in which he is superior to the West—the artful shaping of life, modesty and unpretentiousness in his personal needs, and the purity and calm of the Japanese soul.”

It was less than a decade later that the purity and calm of the Japanese soul was crushed by the spirit of militarism that led to the invasion of Manchuria. Einstein, forced out of Germany by the Nazis, became honorary chairman of the U.S. War Resisters League. His suggestion for ending the fighting was for the leading Western powers to threaten Japan with an economic boycott, which he was certain would work. Instead, the war that drew in his adopted country and sunk the Japanese ships he had sailed on ended only with the deployment of a bomb whose awful power derived from the very law Einstein had set down years ago as a clerk in the Swiss patent office: E=mc2.

A Brief History of the RV

Smithsonian Magazine

On August 21, 1915, the Conklin family departed Huntington, New York on a cross-country camping trip in a vehicle called the “Gypsy Van.” Visually arresting and cleverly designed, the 25-foot, 8-ton conveyance had been custom-built by Roland Conklin’s Gas-Electric Motor Bus Company to provide a maximum of comfort while roughing it on the road to San Francisco. The New York Times gushed that had the “Commander of the Faithful” ordered the “Jinns… to produce out of thin air… a vehicle which should have the power of motion and yet be a dwelling place fit for a Caliph, the result would have fallen far short of the actual house upon wheels which [just] left New York.”

For the next two months, the Conklins and the Gypsy Van were observed and admired by thousands along their westward route, ultimately becoming the subjects of nationwide coverage in the media of the day. Luxuriously equipped with an electrical generator and incandescent lighting, a full kitchen, Pullman-style sleeping berths, a folding table and desk, a concealed bookcase, a phonograph, convertible sofas with throw pillows, a variety of small appliances, and even a “roof garden,” this transport was a marvel of technology and chutzpah.

For many Americans, the Conklin’s Gypsy Van was their introduction to Recreational Vehicles, or simply, RVs. Ubiquitous today, our streamlined motorhomes and camping trailers alike can trace their origins to the time between 1915 and 1930, when Americans’ urge to relax by roughing it and their desire for a host of modern comforts first aligned with a motor camping industry that had the capacity to deliver both.

The Conklins did not become famous simply because they were camping their way to California. Camping for fun was not novel in 1915: It had been around since 1869, when William H.H. Murray published his wildly successful Adventures in the Wilderness; Or, Camp-Life in the Adirondacks, America’s first “how-to” camp guidebook.

Ever since Murray, camping literature has emphasized the idea that one can find relief from the noise, smoke, crowds, and regulations that make urban life tiresome and alienating by making a pilgrimage to nature. All one needed to do was head out of town, camp in a natural place for a while, and then return home restored in spirit, health and sense of belonging. While in the wild, a camper—like any other pilgrim—had to undergo challenges not found at home, which is why camping has long been called “roughing it.” Challenges were necessary because, since Murray’s day, camping has been a recapitulation of the “pioneer” experience on the pre-modern “frontier” where the individual and family were central and the American nation was born.

Camping’s popularity grew slowly, but got more sophisticated when John B. Bachelder offered alternatives to Murray’s vision of traveling around the Adirondacks by canoe in his 1875 book Popular Resorts and How to Reach Them. Bachelder identified three modes of camping: on foot (what we call “backpacking”); on horseback, which allowed for more gear and supplies; and with a horse and wagon. This last was most convenient, allowing for the inclusion ‘of more gear and supplies as well as campers who were unprepared for the rigors of the other two modes. However, horse-and-wagon camping was also the most costly and geographically limited because of the era’s poor roads. In short order, Americans across the country embraced all three manners of camping, but their total number remained relatively small because only the upper middle classes had several weeks’ vacation time and the money to afford a horse and wagon.

Over the next 30 years, camping slowly modernized. In a paradoxical twist, this anti-modern, back-to-nature activity has long been technologically sophisticated. As far back as the 1870s, when a new piece of camping gear appeared, it was often produced with recently developed materials or manufacturing techniques to improve comfort and convenience. Camping enthusiasts, promoters, and manufacturers tended to emphasize the positive consequences of roughing it, but, they added, one didn’t have to suffer through every discomfort to have an authentic and satisfying experience. Instead, a camper could “smooth” some particularly distressing roughness by using a piece of gear that provided enhanced reliability, reduced bulk, and dependable outcomes.

Around 1910 the pace of camping’s modernization increased when inexpensive automobiles began appearing. With incomes rising, car sales exploded. At the same time, vacations became more widespread—soon Bachelder’s horses became motor vehicles, and all the middle classes started to embrace camping. The first RV was hand built onto an automobile in 1904. This proto-motorhome slept four adults on bunks, was lit by incandescent lights and included an icebox and a radio. Over the course of the next decade, well-off tinkerers continued to adapt a variety of automobiles and truck chassis to create even more spacious and comfortable vehicles, but a bridge was crossed in 1915 when Roland and Mary Conklin launched their Gypsy Van.

Unlike their predecessors, the wealthy Conklins modified a bus into a fully furnished, double-deck motorhome. The New York Times, which published several articles about the Conklins, was not sure what to make of their vehicle, suggesting that it was a “sublimated English caravan, land-yacht, or what you will,” but they were certain that it had “all the conveniences of a country house, plus the advantages of unrestricted mobility and independence of schedule.” The family’s journey was so widely publicized that their invention became the general template for generations of motorhomes.

The appeal of motorhomes like the Conklins’ was simple and clear for any camper who sought to smooth some roughness. A car camper had to erect a tent, prepare bedding, unpack clothes, and establish a kitchen and dining area, which could take hours. The motorhome camper could avoid much of this effort. According to one 1920s observer, a motorhome enthusiast simply “let down the back steps and the thing was done.” Departure was just as simple.

When the Conklin family traveled from New York to San Francisco in their luxury van, the press covered their travels avidly. (Courtesy of the George Grantham Bain Collection at the Library of Congress)

By the middle of the 1920s, many Americans of somewhat more average means were tinkering together motorhomes, many along the lines made popular by the Conklins, and with the economy booming, several automobile and truck manufacturers also offered a limited number of fully complete motorhomes, including REO’s “speed wagon bungalow” and Hudson-Essex’s “Pullman Coach.”

In spite of their comforts, motorhomes had two distinct limitations, which ultimately led to the creation of the RV’s understudy: the trailer. A camper could not disconnect the house portion and drive the automobile part alone. (The Conklins had carried a motorcycle.) In addition, many motorhomes were large and limited to traveling only on automobile-friendly roads, making wilder landscapes unreachable. As a consequence of these limitations and their relatively high cost, motorhomes remained a marginal choice among RV campers until the 1960s. Trailers, by contrast, became the choice of people of average means.

The earliest auto camping trailers appeared during the early 1910s but they were spartan affairs: a plain device for carrying tents, sleeping bags, coolers, and other camping equipment. Soon, motivated tinkerers began to attach tent canvas on a collapsible frame, adding cots for sleeping and cupboards for cooking equipment and creating the first “tent trailers.” By mid-decade, it was possible to purchase a fully equipped, manufactured one. In 1923’s Motor Camping, J.C. Long and John D. Long declared that urban Americans were “possessed of the desire to be somewhere else” and the solution was evident—trailer camping. Tent trailering also charmed campers because of its convenience and ease. “Your camping trip will be made doubly enjoyable by using a BRINTNALL CONVERTIBLE CAMPING TRAILER,” blared an advertisement by the Los Angeles Trailer Company. The trailer was “light,” incorporated “comfortable exclusive folding bed features,” and had a “roomy” storage compartment for luggage, which left the car free to be “used for passengers.”

Tent trailering, however, had some drawbacks that became clear to Arthur G. Sherman in 1928 when he and his family headed north from their Detroit home on a modest camping trip. A bacteriologist and the president of a pharmaceutical company, Sherman departed with a newly purchased tent trailer that the manufacturer claimed could be opened into a waterproof cabin in five minutes. Unfortunately, as he and his family went to set it up for the first time, a thunderstorm erupted, and claimed Sherman, they “couldn’t master it after an hour’s wrestling.” Everyone got soaked. The experience so disgusted Sherman that he decided to create something better.

The initial design for Sherman’s new camping trailer was a masonite body standing six-feet wide by nine-feet long and no taller than the family’s car. On each side was a small window for ventilation and two more up front. Inside, Sherman placed cupboards, icebox, stove, built-in furniture and storage on either side of a narrow central aisle. By today’s standards, the trailer was small, boxy and unattractive, but it was solid and waterproof, and required no folding. Sherman had a carpenter build it for him for about $500 and the family took their new “Covered Wagon” (named by the children) camping the following summer of 1929. It had some problems—principally, it was too low inside—but the trailer aroused interest among many campers, some of whom offered to buy it from him. Sherman sensed an opportunity.

That fall, Sherman built two additional Covered Wagons. One was for a friend, but the other one he displayed at the Detroit Auto Show in January 1930. He set the price at $400, which was expensive, and although few people came by the display, Sherman reported that they were “fanatically interested.” By the end of the show, he had sold 118 units, the Covered Wagon Company was born, and the shape of an RV industry was set.

Over the next decade the company grew rapidly and to meet demand, trailers were built on an assembly line modeled on the auto industry. In 1936, Covered Wagon was the largest trailer producer in an expanding American industry, selling approximately 6,000 units, with gross sales of $3 million. By the end of the 1930s, the solid-body industry was producing more than 20,000 units per year and tent trailers had more or less disappeared.

Arthur Sherman’s solid-body trailer quickly gained acceptance for two principal reasons. First, Sherman was in the right place, at the right time, with the right idea. Detroit was at the center of the Great Lakes states, which at that time contained the country’s greatest concentration of campers. Furthermore, southern Michigan was the hub of the automobile industry, so a wide range of parts and skills were available, especially once the Depression dampened demand for new automobiles. And, a solid-body trailer took another step along the path of modernization by providing a more convenient space that was usable at any time.

Today’s 34-foot Class A motorhome with multiple TVs, two bathrooms, and a king bed is a version of the Conklin’s “Gypsy Van” and fifth-wheel toy haulers with popouts are the descendants of Arthur Sherman’s “Covered Wagon,” and these, in turn, are modernized versions of Bachelder’s horse-and-wagon camping. Between 1915 and 1930, Americans’ desire to escape modern life’s pressures by traveling into nature intersected with their yearning to enjoy the comforts of modern life while there. This contradiction might have produced only frustration, but tinkering, creativity, and a love of autos instead gave us recreational vehicles.

Vesuvius' Scorching Eruption Turned a Man's Brain Into Glass

Smithsonian Magazine

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., hundreds of people in the nearby town of Herculaneum fled to waterfront chambers in hopes of seeking shelter from the catastrophic explosion—a desperate plan that failed to save them from meeting gruesome ends. Among the few who stayed in the town was a roughly 25-year-old man whose ash-covered remains were discovered in a wooden bed during the 1960s.

Now, a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests a shiny black fragment found within the victim’s skull represents remnants of the man’s brain, which was subjected to such searing heat that it turned into glass.

Located some 11 miles north of Pompeii, Herculaneum was a prosperous seaside town home to between 4,000 and 5,000 people before it was destroyed by Vesuvius’ blast. Though many residents attempted to escape, the researchers’ subject decided to stay behind in the College of the Augustales, “an imperial order devoted to the Roman emperor Augustus,” according to Teo Armus of the Washington Post.

The victim, likely a guard at the college, was killed by Vesuvius’ first pyroclastic surge—clouds of ash, rock and volcanic gas that “move at hurricane velocities and have temperatures of several hundred degrees Celsius,” per the United States Geological Survey.

Pierpaolo Petrone, a forensic anthropologist from the University of Naples Federico II, was examining the man’s remains in October 2018 when he noticed “something was shimmery in the shattered skull,” as he tells Alexandria Sage and Franck Iovene of Agence France-Presse. Petrone immediately suspected the material was brain tissue that had undergone vitrification, a process that occurs when tissue is burned at a high heat and transformed into a glass or glaze.

Human brains are rarely found among archaeological remains. When the organs do surface, they tend to be preserved in the form of a smooth, soap-like substance. As Nicoletta Lanese explains for Live Science, fatty brain tissue reacts with charged particles in the surrounding environment, transforming the organ into soap over time.

Petrone and his colleagues think the extreme conditions caused by Vesuvius’ eruption led something different to happen.

“[E]xtreme radiant heat was able to ignite body fat and vaporize soft tissues; a rapid drop in temperature followed,” the researchers write.

This burst of broiling heat, followed by a cooling of the body, transformed the man’s brain tissue into glass.

Several compelling signs suggested Petrone’s initial hunch was correct. For one, the glassy material only appeared inside the man’s skull; it failed to surface anywhere else on the skeleton, in the surrounding volcanic ash or at other locations within the archaeological site. Charred wood discovered within the college indicated that temperatures reached nearly 970 degrees Fahrenheit—a clear indication that “extreme radiant heat” was indeed a factor in the man’s death.

Testing of the glass samples also revealed fatty acids consistent with those found in human hair, though as the Post points out, animals and vegetables also contain such substances, so the results aren’t conclusive. More compelling was the discovery of several proteins “highly expressed in human brain tissues” within the samples, according to the researchers.

The new report offers further (and rather horrifying) insight into how Vesuvius’ victims died—a subject that continues to confound experts. Yet another new study published in the journal Antiquity suggests the unfortunate ancients suffocated from the volcano’s toxic fumes, their bodies “baking” after they died. This research, in fact, contradicts a 2018 study headed by Patrone, which found that a pyroclastic surge made victims’ blood boil and their skulls explode.

In light of his new findings, Patrone hopes the glassy brain fragments can shed further insight into the identity of the unknown victim. Ancient DNA has previously been used to establish family ties between people who died in Vesuvius’ eruption.

“If we manage to reheat the material, liquefy it,” Patrone tells AFP, “we could maybe find this individual’s DNA.”

Researchers Identify How Much Radiation Hiroshima Victims Were Exposed to

Smithsonian Magazine

On the morning of August 6, 1945, an American B-29 bomber dropped the first atomic bomb used in warfare on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. The nuclear bombardment decimated the city, killing between 90,000 and 166,000 people in a four-month period following the explosion.

Today, a rebuilt Hiroshima, home to a population of almost 1.2 million, renders the devastation inflicted on the city seven decades ago almost invisible.

But evidence of the atomic bomb lives on in the bones of victims of the blast. A recent study published in the journal PLOS ONE used the jawbone of one person who was less than a mile from the bomb’s hypocenter to reveal exactly how much radiation was absorbed by the city’s population.

As Laura Geggel reports for Live Science, the research team used a technique called Electron Spin Resonance spectroscopy to learn the jawbone contained 9.46 grays, or Gy (the unit to measure absorbed radiation), double the amount it would take to kill someone if their entire body is exposed.

The researchers say their work is the first to use human bones to precisely measure the radiation absorbed by atomic bombing victims. However, as the Washington Post's Kristine Phillips points out, in the late 1990s, a team of scientists from Japan were able to measure the radiation dose that nasopharyngeal cancer patients had absorbed from radiotherapy by studying their jawbones.

The new research is thanks to advances in technology. According to the study, in the 1970s, co-author Brazilian scientist Sérgio Mascarenhas discovered that X-Ray and gamma-ray radiation exposure caused human bones to become weakly magnetic. While his initial idea was to use his observation toward the archaeological dating of bones of prehistoric animals and humans in Brazil, he soon decided to test his methodology on nuclear bombing victims.

So, he traveled to Japan, where he was given the jawbone featured in the latest stduy from a Hiroshima victim. But the technology was not advanced enough, nor were there computers that could process the results in a precise manner. Making use of the instruments at hand, Mascarenhas presented evidence that the blast radiation aborbed by the jawbone sample could be observed at a meeting of the American Physical Society in 1973.

The jawbone was brought to Brazil, where it waited until science was ready for then-postdoctoral student Angela Kinoshita to continue Mascarenhas' research with co-author Oswaldo Baffa, her former professor at the University of São Paulo.

Kinoshita, who is now a professor at University of the Sacred Heart in Brazil, was able to use ESR to identify direct blast radiation in the jawbone from so-called background signal, which the press release explains as "a kind of noise...[that] may have resulted from the superheating of the material during the explosion."

To conduct their research, the team removed a small piece of the jawbone used in the previous study and then exposed it to radiation in a lab. This process is known as the additive dose method. Their result was similar to the dose found in physical objects taken from the site, including bricks and house tiles.

The scientists are currently looking into even more sensitive methodology, which they predict in the press release to be "about a thousand times more sensitive than spin resonance." They see their research becoming increasingly relevant in future events like in the case of a terrorism attack.

“Imagine someone in New York planting an ordinary bomb with a small amount of radioactive material stuck to the explosive,” Baffa tell Agência FAPESP. “Techniques like this can help identify who has been exposed to radioactive fallout and needs treatment.”

This Spring, Dalí Museum Visitors Will Be Welcomed by AI Version of the Artist Himself

Smithsonian Magazine

In a move that would have appealed to its namesake’s flair for larger-than-life dramatics, the Salvador Dalí Museum is presenting an interactive iteration of the mustachioed modern art master himself this spring.

With just a click of a button, Taylor Dafoe writes for artnet News, the Surrealist artist will materialize on giant screens set up throughout the St. Petersburg, Florida, institution, ready to offer insights on his creative process and, most curiously, current events that the real Dalí has missed out on in the decades since his death in 1989.

Called “Dalí Lives,” the venture—which will debut in April—draws on archival footage, photographs and interviews, as well as new footage featuring a Dalí lookalike.

According to a press release, the Dalí Museum partnered with creative advertising agency Goodby Silverstein & Partners (GS&P) to produce the AI experience. It marks the third collaboration between the museum and GS&P. In 2014, Stuart Elliott reports for The New York Times, the gallery hosted an exhibition featuring a photo kiosks where visitors could take a selfie. These images were stitched together to create a pixelated digital reproduction of a 1976 painting by the Surrealist, which wthen projected onto the wall beside Dalí’s original portrait.

Interestingly, Susana Martinez-Conde notes for Scientific American, the canvas, a dream-like portrait of the artist’s wife titled “Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea which at Twenty Meters Becomes the Portrait of Abraham Lincoln-Homage to Rothko (Second Version),” was itself painted after Dalí read a Scientific American article on face perception.

A second partnering in 2016 resulted in “Dreams of Dalí,” a virtual reality experience that brought visitors inside of the artist’s 1934 work, “Archaeological Reminiscence of Millet’s ‘Angelus.’”

This time around, the museum drew on hundreds of archival sources to teach an algorithm the artist’s mannerisms and appearance. Next, the team recruited an actor to deliver various monologues, most of which draw on quotes attributed to Dalí himself but also feature an array of what the statement describes as “dynamic present-day messages.”

Three promotional videos released in conjunction with the museum’s announcement offer an enticing sneak peek of how that might translate on screen.

In the longest of the three clips, the virtual reality Dalí meditates on the artist's real philosophy on death, which he saw as a natural, and therefore welcome, result of life—at least when it came to others. When pondering his own mortality, however, Dalí declared his death a distant near-impossibility.

“I understand that better now,” the Dalí approximation declares, pausing a moment to let those words sink in before teasing, conspiratorially: “[Still,] I do not believe in my death. Do you?”

Hank Hine, executive director of the Dalí Museum, tells artnet News’ Dafoe that they let the artist's own ideas guide the project. “Dalí was famous for his sense of his own eternal significance. It’s almost like, if had left instructions for us, this project would have been among them,” he says.

As Dalí himself once proclaimed, “If someday I may die, although it is unlikely, I hope that the people in the cafes will say, ‘Dalí has died, but not entirely.’”

Underground Railroad Safe House Discovered in Philadelphia

Smithsonian Magazine

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the black abolitionist William Still offered shelter to hundreds of freedom seekers as they journeyed northward. His narrow house in Philadelphia served as an important stop on the Underground Railroad—and as Meagan Flynn reports for the Washington Post, a team of preservationists believe they have finally identified the home where Still and his wife Letitia once lived.

Earlier this month, the Philadelphia Historical Commission voted to include a row house on South Delhi Street (formerly Ronaldson Street) in the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, which ensures that the property cannot be demolished or significantly altered. The house was remodeled in 1920, but experts say that the front marble steps appear to be the same ones that Still and many people escaping slavery would have stood on more than 150 years ago.

In their search for this important historic landmark, preservationists paged through many 19th-century maps and city records. Some of them identified the name of Still’s street, but did not specify the house number. Then one of the historians, Jim Duffin, came across an 1851 newspaper advertisement for a dressmaking business “done in the best manner by Letitia Still”—which included her address.

“From my perspective, it’s a huge discovery,” Duffin tells Flynn. “The hardest problem of trying to retrieve the story of the Underground Railroad is finding documentation that the sites existed. This is one of the incredibly rare opportunities where we absolutely know that this site had a connection to the Underground Railroad because of its connection to Still.”

According to a document nominating the house for inclusion in the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, Still has been described as “second only to Harriet Tubman in Underground Railroad operations.” The child of formerly enslaved parents, his father had purchased freedom, while his mother escaped enslavement. Still moved from New Jersey to Philadelphia in the 1840s and began working for Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. He became a key player in the Society’s Vigilance Committee, which helped those escaping slavery travel along a network of safe houses stretching from the Southern United States to Canada. Still was active in the Committee during a dangerous time for abolitionists; the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act had instituted harsh punishments for anyone discovered assisting freedom seekers.

In spite of the dangers, William and Letitia sheltered many fugitives in their home. Among those to seek refuge were Jane Johnson and her two sons, whose dramatic story of escape was broadcast across the nation. The Johnsons were taken to Philadelphia by slaveholder John Hill Wheeler, who was traveling to New York. As they were preparing to leave Philadelphia on a ferry, Still and another abolitionist, Passermore Williamson, rushed over to Johnson and informed her that she could become a free woman if she came with them. Williamson and several African-American dockworkers detained Wheeler while Still ushered Johnson and her children away to his home.

Williamson and Still were subsequently arrested, and news of their heroic actions helped stir up support for the abolitionist movement. Still later described Johnson’s story, along with the stories of hundreds of others escaping slavery, in his 1872 book, The Underground Railroad, which is one of few firsthand accounts by African American abolitionists.

In a letter of support for the campaign to protect Still’s house, historian Eric Foner said that in the midst of a nation-wide movement to take down controversial Confederate monuments, it is important to remember the importance of elevating sites that are significant to African American history.

“I prefer to add new historic sites to make the representation of history more accurately reflect our diverse past and present and to honor those who fought against slavery as well as those who went to war to defend it,” Foner wrote, according to Jake Blumgart of Plan Philly. “Thus, designating the Still home as a historic property would be a statement… about what in our past we choose to honor and why.”

Volunteers Counted All the Squirrels in Central Park

Smithsonian Magazine

Finally, after months of analysis, an event at the Explorer’s Club in New York City recently announced the results of a highly anticipated citizen-science investigation: Central Park is home to about 2,373 eastern gray squirrels.

The Central Park Squirrel Census had enlisted 300 volunteers to track down the bushy-tailed citizens of the 840-acre park over an 11-day count period last October, as Kaitlyn Schwalje at National Geographic reports. According to Eleanor Cummins, a science journalist for Popular Science who participated in the project, the park was divided into hectares, which total roughly the size of a squirrel's home territory. Volunteers then cased the zones, on the lookout for squirrels. Each hectare was surveyed once during the morning and once in the evening, when the squirrels are most active. The would-be squirrelologists also noted behaviors, such as how they reacted to humans (whether they rushed up, chattering for a peanut), how old they appeared, any vocalizations they made and the coloration of their coats.

The organization is selling a $75 report on its overall findings, which includes 37 pages of squirrel data, an audio report on a vinyl 45, five-foot maps of the park and a comparably sized map of all surveyed squirrel locations, and some squirrelly baseball cards. It’s like the hipster version of a scientific journal, with much better fonts.

So who's responsible for this art/science/urban studies mash up? Cummins of Pop Sci reports that the project was first dreamed up by Atlanta-based writer Jamie Allen. In 2011, Allen became curious about how many squirrels were chattering in the trees around him, but could find no good answer to his question. So he and a ragtag group of volunteers conducted the first Squirrel Census in Atlanta’s Inman Park and followed that up with a series of beautifully designed visualizations of the squirrels. A second Inman census was conducted in 2015. Afterward, the group set its sights on tallying Central Park’s squirrels.

You might be asking yourself, why is the group going through all this trouble? “We do it for you. We do it for the city. We do it for the squirrels,” Allen tells Schwalje of Nat Geo, “because it makes us happy.”

It’s also a little bit for science. While gray squirrels are one of the most common mammals in North America, they get surprisingly little research attention. For instance, Schwalje writes, between 1962 and 2012, no one published anything about squirrel alarm calls. Thaddeus McRae, a biologist at Lee University, finally broke that dry spell when he wrote his dissertation on the topic. “Some people are bird people, some people are cat people. Some people love bugs. That can influence choices of what gets studied as much as anything else,” he says. “Squirrels are cute, but so commonplace to many of us that they become background.”

New York City’s squirrels have been through a lot. According to Sadie Stein at New York magazine, deforestation around the city in the early 1800s pretty much wiped out the squirrel population. When a pet squirrel did escape in 1856, it was such a novelty that it attracted a crowd of hundreds that had to be dispersed by the cops.

In 1877 and 1878, between 60 to 70 squirrels were released in Central Park. By 1883, the population rebounded a little too well; an estimated 1,500 squirrels reportedly destroyed trees and other vegetation, leading the city to authorize a squirrel hunt. Over the next hundred years or so, the squirrel and the park came more into balance, and now, as the new project shows, the urban forest comfortably supports more than 2,000 of the critters.

While the census isn’t a peer-reviewed scientific publication, it may have value for researchers. The 2015 Inman Park Census, for example, was used by Emory University researchers to understand how diseases like West Nile Virus can travel through urban landscapes. It’s possible the Central Park data could be used in a similar manner. But it’s also possible that the end result is just a really nice map tallying where all the squirrels in the park were in October of 2018.

Experience 1930s Europe Through the Words of Two African American Women

Smithsonian Magazine

Five years before the publication of the first Negro Motorist Green Book—the beloved guide of destinations deemed safe for African Americans in a nation segregated by Jim Crow—two cousins named Roberta G. Thomas and Flaurience Sengstacke chronicled what life was like for two young, African American women traveling abroad. Published in the pages of the Chicago Defender, a weekly newspaper published by their uncle Robert Sengstacke Abbott, the cousins’ columns regaled readers with tales of the duo’s travels throughout Europe, as recounted in some 20 articles penned between July 1931 and August 1932. They experienced highs, like watching the indelible Josephine Baker perform in Paris, and lows, including an encounter with racism on an Italian train ride. The pair’s words bore auspicious warning, particularly as they witnessed the rise of “oppression and paranoia” during the dying days of Germany’s Weimar Republic.

By sharing stories with the largely black readership of the Defender, the cousins sparked remembrance of fond memories among those who had similarly traveled abroad and provided an escapist fantasy for those who had “not yet seen the grandeur that is Europe.” The Defender, like other black newspapers at the time, used overseas correspondents to report on news, encouraging those traveling abroad as performers, tourists and students to report on their experiences. Rather than focusing exclusively on local or domestic issues, the publication hoped to establish African Americans’ presence on the world stage.

Hilary Mac Austin, author of the journal article “The Defender Brings You the World,” writes that this coverage “was an essential element in the cosmopolitan identity” of the black elite. The cousins’ European adventures signaled to readers that grand tours of Europe weren’t limited to upper-class white women, but were also accessible to African American travelers.

According to Ethan Michaeli’s The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America, the newspaper catered to a diverse audience of laborers, maids, students, churchgoers, theatergoers, business owners and unemployed individuals affected by the Great Depression. It boasted an array of notable advertisers, including Madam C.J. Walker, one of the country’s wealthiest African American entrepreneurs, and despite its Chicago-centric title, reached a widespread audience. Abbott shrewdly recruited Pullman porters to supplement their income by distributing the Defender on trains traveling throughout the United States and signing up new subscribers.

Arguably the most important aspect of the paper’s legacy was its role in the Great Migration. Because the Defender encouraged African Americans to leave the South and move north for better occupational opportunities, many white Southerners considered it dangerously radical and “sought to prohibit its sale and distribution.” In Meridian, Mississippi, the police chief attempted to confiscate all copies of the newspapers but was thwarted when the “paper sold out on the day it arrived.” Copies were exchanged “until they disintegrated,” according to Michaeli.

The cousins (Thomas stands at the far left, while Sengstacke is seated at the far left) pose for a family portrait after returning from their trip. (Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection at the Chicago Public Library )

By 1916, the Defender had become the best-selling black newspaper in the United States. At its height during World War I, writes Michaeli, the publication was considered the “king of the weeklies.” Adds the author, “The Defender was the giant … in terms of circulation and national reach, selling as many copies every week as all of the ten other black newspapers combined.” In 1921, the paper sold more than 280,000 weekly copies; nine years later, in the midst of the Great Depression, the Defender remained relatively robust, selling an average of 110,000 weekly copies.

Abbott financed Thomas and Sengstacke’s European vacation as a generous gift marking their graduation from Fisk University, a historically black university in Nashville, in 1930. Both 24 years old at the start of the trip, the duo traversed Italy, Sweden, Denmark, England, France, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland and Germany, relaying news from abroad in joint dispatches or in Thomas’ solo column, “A Little About Everything.”

The cousins’ journey began on a positive note. Setting sail on July 17, 1931, the young women reported that “there was not an inch of prejudice” aboard the S.S. Conte Biancamano. “Everyone was friendly,” the pair added.

Thomas and Sengstacke spent the majority of their year in Germany with relatives. Reflecting on the experience, they wrote, mirroring their description of their eastbound sea journey, “There were no traces of cruelty or prejudice seen the whole time we were there.” The cousins acknowledged that “We were stared at more in Germany than in any other country,” but explained, “We soon found that the stare was a friendly and curious stare, and only typical of those parts of Germany where the darker people seldom visit.” While visiting family in Bremen, the pair even reported, “Everyone wanted to dance with us and did their best to make things pleasant for us.”

According to the duo, the Germans they encountered were both well-informed on and appalled by the treatment of African Americans in the United States. “We were asked many times about the Race problem,” the cousins wrote. “One fellow wanted to know why Negroes stayed in America and did not go to countries where they treat people like they are human beings.”

One of the most poignant moments detailed in Thomas and Sengstacke’s missives reflects the pervasive reach of Jim Crow. In 1931, the cousins, accompanied by a group of black students from Virginia’s Hampton Institute, sat down to dine on a train from Florence to Venice. Before they could order, however, a group of white college students from Texas approached the table and said, “You have our seats; we ordered these.” The cousins and their companions promptly moved, only to realize they were the butt of a joke when the Texans “began laughing and saying unpleasant things.” Dismay turned into indignation, and as Thomas and Sengstacke later recounted, “[W]e reported them to the head man, who asked them to get up and get out of the dining car or take other seats. And were they angry!”

The dining car incident served as a prelude to the travelers’ next encounter with the “poor little Texans,” who were reportedly “shocked” to see the group relaxing in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square. One white student said, “We do not allow them to do that in Texas.” In response, a Hampton student retorted, “Remember, brother, you are not in Texas.” The cousins recorded the incidents in a column sub-titled “A familiar act in a strange setting.”


Most of the cousins’ Defender dispatches centered on more traditional tourist fare, including trips to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, the ruins of Pompeii, the Tower of London, Sweden’s Malmö Castle, the Eiffel Tower and many other sites. Others detailed such topics as obtaining a passport and visas; saving money; using traveler’s checks and letters of credits; coping with sea sickness; and selecting a guide or interpreter (not on the streets!). Thomas and Sengstacke assured readers that though they both spoke a little German and French, they added that they had no need to learn more than a few key words in each destination’s respective language.

The cousins during their teenage years (Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection at the Chicago Public Library )

While in London, where they also visited the British Museum, they wrote, “Every afternoon and evening we would either sit in Hyde Park, which was right across the street from our hotel and listen to the band concert, or sit near the window in our hotel and enjoy the program just the same.” In Copenhagen, the pair had “the great pleasure of seeing and hearing the great actress of Paris, Josephine Baker, and she was good!” Performing in a packed theater, Baker —an American expatriate who won fame in 1920s France with her sensual jazz routines—enthralled the cousins with her “apparels, her charming manners, her individual dances and acts. … She did most of her speaking and singing in French and German. She was the talk of the town.”

Later, during a separate trip to Paris, Thomas and Sengstacke attended yet another Baker show. Assessing the state of the French capital’s overall culture, they noted that many of the city’s cabarets were “owned and operated by Negroes and [staffed with] many Negro orchestras and entertainers.”


The cousins’ initial impression of Germany as a tolerant, progressive nation belied the changing tides on the horizon. While visiting the town of Heidelberg, for instance, Thomas and Sengstacke saw a bridge and castle engulfed in flames as part of a celebration of German independence: “Everything was in an uproar as the famous Hitlerites were staging a political scene. On a lofty hill behind the castle one got a glimpse of an electric sign being flashed on and off and each time the sign was lighted with Hitlerite colors [the crowd] would yell, ‘Heil Hitler.’” Rather than dwelling on this disturbing scene, the pair left Heidelberg, taking a trip down the Rhine to Cologne.

When Sengstacke returned to Germany to visit relatives in 1936, she reported back to U.S.-based family members that “the atmosphere had changed from one of warmth and openness to oppression and paranoia.” Photographs of a maternal ancestor named Elizabeth Sengstacke Boedeker, as well as a portrait of Abbott, founder and publisher of the Defender, had been taken down from where they “had hung proudly in their parlor” due to their subjects’ “distinctly African complexion.” Additionally, Sengstacke stated, because “the oldest of these cousins were just one-quarter African, … under the Nuremberg Laws of racial purity passed the previous year, even that ancestry had become a dangerous liability.

Deemed “non-Aryans,” these relatives now fell under the purview of government officials who removed the younger family members from school, fired the adults from their jobs, cut their food rations, and even blocked them from mundane activities like wearing a brown shirt, part of the uniform of the Nazi paramilitary units. Family members asked Sengstacke to tell relatives in Chicago to stop sending issues of the Defender because of its unflattering comments about Germany.


The cousins’ final column, titled “America Welcomes Travelers at End of World Trip,” described their return voyage on the S.S. Bremen, which docked in New York City on August 27, 1932. They concluded:

[W]e will never be able to express enough gratitude to the giver. The trip was quite an inspiration that no human being can take from us regardless of how hard he tries. It is something that we will take with us to our graves—it is something that we can amuse ourselves with while alone; it is more than a good friend would be to use because it will stay with us always.

To the Defender’s readers, they said:

[W]e hope that you have enjoyed our articles and that some day you too may be able to cover the same trip and more, and write up your experiences for others to read and profit by in years to come. You can really see America from a different angle after such a trip is taken.

Today, travel groups such as Black & Abroad, or individual black bloggers like Oneika the Traveller, continue the tradition pioneered by Thomas and Sengstacke, offering African American readers tips on how to travel cheaply, take solo trips, decide which tourist sites to visit and where to dine. Tours like Black Paris, meanwhile, literally find tourists tracing the footsteps of black luminaries including Baker, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin and Richard Wright.

Unlike Thomas and Sengstacke, today’s travel bloggers often finance their own adventures. Still, the cousins’ modern counterparts remain equally committed to encouraging other black travelers to experience the joys of visiting other countries as inexpensively and as safely as possible.

Today's Tattoos

Smithsonian Magazine

Damon Conklin, owner of Super Genius Tattoo in Seattle, Washington, and founder of the Seattle Tattoo Convention, weighs in on which tattoo designs are the most popular on the West Coast. Tom Yak of New York Adorned says tattoo fans on the East Coast want the same provocative styles; the more customized, the better.

1. Flowers

Conklin: Everything from the daisy on the ankle to floral arrangement, reaching across several bodyparts.

Yak: Floral tattoos always remain in style. I do a lot of lotus flowers. I draw American imagery, daisies and roses, but I try to add an eastern sort of flair.

2. Lettering

Conklin: Usually names and quotes, but sometimes they're elaborate. In one instance, a New York-based writer composed a short story. You could only receive a copy of the story if you had an assigned word from the story tattooed on you, and when completed, the some total of participants comprised the whole story.

3. Symbols

Conklin: This could be as simple as an astrological sign or as abstact as an image that somehow represents a time or accomplishment in someone's life.

Yak: About 80 to 90 percent of what I do are personalized designs. That's what people want.

4. Religion

Conklin: Crosses, Jesus or a range of other gods, including depictions of events in sacred text.

5. Skulls

Conklin: Mostly human and other bone-related stuff.

Image by Damon Conklin. #1: Flowers.
Conklin: Everything from the daisy on the ankle to floral arrangement, reaching across several bodyparts. (original image)

Image by Tom Yak. #1: Flowers.
Yak: Floral tattoos always remain in style. I do a lot of lotus flowers. I draw American imagery, daisies and roses, but I try to add an eastern sort of flair. (original image)

Image by Damon Conklin. #2: Lettering.
Conklin: Usually names and quotes, but sometimes they're elaborate. In one instance, a New York-based writer composed a short story. You could only receive a copy of the story if you had an assigned word from the story tattooed on you, and when completed, the some total of participants comprised the whole story. (original image)

Image by Damon Conklin. #3: Symbols.
Conklin: This could be as simple as an astrological sign or as abstact as an image that somehow represents a time or accomplishment in someones life.Yak: About 80 to 90 percent of what I do are personalized designs. That's what people want. (original image)

Image by Wilson Kamin. #4: Religion.
Conklin: Crosses, Jesus or a range of other gods, including depictions of events in sacred text. (original image)

Image by Damon Conklin. #5: Skulls.<Br/>Conklin: Mostly human and other bone-related stuff. (original image)

Image by Ryan Rogers. #6: Japanese designs.<Br/>Conklin: The whole world of traditional Japanese art and tattooing is very influential in today's modern tattooing to the point where almost every tattoo reflects a lesson taken from Japanese art.Yak: I do a lot of Eastern-inspired art and a lot with the elements. Water, fire, wind. Also, power symbols like the dragon and khoi fish. (original image)

Image by Paul Thomas. #7: Portrait.
Conklin: This is mostly the realistic likeness of loved ones or celebrities, but more recently has been expanded to include all manner of realistic tattooing. (original image)

Image by Jeff Cornell. #8: Love.
Conklin: Hearts mostly, but sometimes sarcastic statements about love.Yak: The traditional American style provides the customer with a more historic feel. It's stood the test of time. (original image)

Image by Damon Conklin. #9: Birds.
Conklin: Including mythological flyers like phoenixes and griffins. Flying is always a metaphor for rising above, excelling and emergence. (original image)

Image by Jeff Cornell. #10: Wildlife.
Conklin: All manners of living creatures, from lions to gold fish. (original image)

Image by Damon Conklin. Damon Conklin uses the body, from head to feet, as his canvas. (original image)

Image by Tom Yak. Tom Yak of New York Adorned has tattooed over 10,000 clients. (original image)

Image by Damon Conklin. "A great way to brainstorm a tattoo idea is to mix three of these categories," says Damon Conklin, owner of Super Genius Tattoo, who provided this list of most popular tattoo designs. (original image)

Image by Kelly Durkin. Tom Yak, a tattooer at New York Adorned, has tattooed more than 10,000 clients. (original image)

6. Japanese designs

Conklin: The whole world of traditional Japanese art and tattooing is very influential in today's modern tattooing to the point where almost every tattoo reflects a lesson taken from Japanese art.

Yak: I do a lot of Eastern-inspired art and a lot with the elements. Water, fire, wind. Also, power symbols like the dragon and khoi fish.

7. Portrait

Conklin: This is mostly the realistic likeness of loved ones or celebrities, but more recently has been expanded to include all manner of realistic tattooing.

8. Love

Conklin: Hearts mostly, but sometimes sarcastic statements about love.

Yak: The traditional American style stuff provides the customer with a more historic feel. It's stood the test of time.

9. Birds

Conklin: Including mythological flyers like phoenixes and griffins. Flying is always a metaphor for rising above, excelling and emergence.

10. Wildlife

Conklin: All manners of living creatures, from lions to gold fish.

See Scrap of Cloth Believed to Be From Elizabeth I’s Only Surviving Dress

Smithsonian Magazine

When Elizabeth I died in 1603, her wardrobe encompassed more than 2,000 sumptuously tailored gowns, from cloth of gold trimmed with ermine and jewels to pearl-draped dresses made of the finest fabrics. Today, little of this attire survives: As Eleri Lynn, a curator for England’s Historic Royal Palaces, explained to the Telegraph’s Gordon Rayner in 2017, most articles of royal clothing were so expensive that they ended up recycled or gifted to those in a monarch’s service. Combined with the fact that Parliamentarian Oliver Cromwell sold most of the items in the royal stores after seizing power, the few extant examples of Tudor clothing tend to be those that escaped court prior to the English Civil War.

Until recently, historians believed that none of Elizabeth’s clothing had survived to modern times. In 2016, however, Lynn chanced upon an embroidered scrap of silk researchers now say was almost certainly worn by the queen herself. The fabric—once used as an altar cloth at St. Faith’s Church in Bacton, Herefordshire, and now extensively restored following 1,000 hours of conservation—is set to go on view at Elizabeth’s former home, Hampton Court Palace, this October.

According to the Telegraph’s Dalya Alberge, the cloth likely landed in Bacton thanks to the village’s association with Blanche Parry, one of the Tudor regnant’s longtime attendants. Parry, who was born in Bacton around 1508, watched over Elizabeth while she was still in the cradle and remained in the queen’s service until her death in 1590. As Lynn tells Alberge, it’s possible Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting sent the textile to Parry’s hometown church in hopes of paying tribute to their friend.

Image by Courtesy of Historic Royal Palaces. The cloth likely ended up in Bacton thanks to the village’s association with Blanche Parry, one of the Tudor regnant’s longtime attendants (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Historic Royal Palaces. The Bacton cloth once constituted two sections of a skirt, bodice and sleeves (original image)

The silver chamblet silk fabric, embroidered with gold and silver thread and cut in a manner suggesting it once constituted two sections of a skirt, bodice and sleeves, closely resembles the gown donned by Elizabeth in the so-called “Rainbow Portrait.” Painted by artist Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger around 1600, the symbol-laden work features a seemingly ageless monarch in her prime. This carefully cultivated image, similar to that seen in many later portraits of the queen, strives to maintain the myth of Elizabeth’s youthful beauty by masking the hallmarks of old age. Per Hampton Court Palace, the portrait, on loan from Hatfield House, will be displayed alongside the Bacton altar cloth, as well as a replica of the original dress to which the fabric belonged.

Alberge of the Telegraph writes that the cloth measures more than 6.5 by 3 feet. It is embroidered with wildlife, including caterpillars, butterflies, frogs and flowers, and contains narrative scenes such as a sea monster towering over an empty boat. Unlike most embroidered work, which was created on canvas, cut out and appliquéd to other fabrics, the Bacton cloth’s embroidery was sewn directly onto cloth of silver.

“The embroiderer is saying, ‘I’m not going to make a mistake,’ demonstrating that they have such a level of skill that they can afford to embroider through cloth of silver,” Lynn tells the Telegraph. “This is a masterpiece. … There is no other surviving example of this technique anywhere.”

"Rainbow Portrait," c. 1600–02, attributed to Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (Public domain)

In 2018, Lynn wrote a journal article outlining the argument for attributing the cloth to Elizabeth. Published in Costume, the study notes that locals had long believed Parry worked on the fabric herself and later gifted it to the church, which boasts a memorial to the royal attendant. In 1909, however, Reverend Charles Brothers ordered the cloth framed, asserting that it could have once been “worn by Queen Elizabeth.”

As Lynn explains, there is no documentary evidence supporting the idea that the cloth belonged to either Elizabeth or Parry. Still, she writes, records show that the queen often gifted her beloved attendant various fineries and perhaps “retained enough affection for Blanche to donate the valuable skirt fabric in memory of her.” The exceptionally skilled workmanship evident on the cloth—“This quality suggests that it was intended for the highest level of customer,” Lynn notes, pointing out that Elizabeth enforced sumptuary laws prohibiting other women from wearing such finery—and the fact that it was used as a sacred, and therefore revered, item, further supports the argument for its royal origins.

“When I saw it for the first time I knew immediately that it was something special,” Lynn tells the Telegraph’s Rayner. “As I examined it, I felt as though I had found the Holy Grail, the Mona Lisa of fashion. None of Elizabeth I’s dresses are known to have survived, but everything we have learnt since then points to it being worn by Elizabeth.”

The lost dress of Elizabeth I will be on display at Hampton Court Palace from October 12, 2019, through February 23, 2020.

Five Things to Know About Botswana’s Decision to Lift Ban on Hunting Elephants

Smithsonian Magazine

Botswana, home to the world’s largest African elephant population, has lifted its five-year suspension of elephant hunting, attracting the ire of conservationists while placating those who argue that the land giants, known to kill livestock and destroy crops, are wreaking havoc on locals’ livelihoods.

In a statement detailing the reversal, Botswana’s Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources Conservation and Tourism cited the increasing prevalence of human-elephant conflict, the Department of Wildlife and National Parks’ inability to respond to animal control reports in a timely fashion, and the toll on communities ill-equipped to handle the unimpeded roaming of these roughly 12,000-pound creatures. The ministry further said that reinstatement will be performed “in an orderly and ethical manner.”

The exact nature of this “ethical” implementation remains unclear, as do the long-term ramifications of the decision for both Botswana’s human and pachyderm residents. But in the meantime, here’s what we do know:

Why a hunting ban was first issued

To protect these creatures from trophy hunters and ivory poachers, former President Ian Khama imposed the hunting ban in 2014. An ardent conservationist, he also introduced a highly controversial “shoot to kill” policy for stopping poachers, which included arming anti-poaching units with military-grade weapons and approved shooting known poachers on sight. (Both policies have been eliminated under the current administration.)

The elephant hunting ban helped Botswana emerge as a “conservation success story,” write The New York Times’ Kimon de Greef and Megan Specia. Although the Great Elephant Census of 2016 found that Africa’s elephant population dropped by at least 30 percent between 2007 and 2014, the southern country has supported a relatively stable population of more than 130,000 for the past 15 years, according to IUCN researchers’ estimates. Depending on who you ask, Pauline Bax writes for Bloomberg, this figure shifts dramatically, citing a member of Botswana Parliament who claimed—allegedly based on government data—that the real number is closer to 230,000.

According to the Conservation Action Trust’s Louise De Waal, disparities in population estimates stem partly from the fact that some 216,000 African elephants migrate freely between Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, making it difficult to classify them as residents of one specific country. Most of Botswana’s elephants live in the country’s northern region, though National Geographic’s Rachael Bale notes that the species’ range has expanded considerably as drought conditions drive them further south—and therefore closer humans already living on the land. Still, Cara Anna reports for the Associated Press, Botswana has “more space than many other countries for animals to roam.”

How the hunting ban got lifted and its political implications

Soon after taking office, Khama’s successor President Mokgweetsi Masisi tasked a committee with re-evaluating the ban. A committee of local authorities, affected communities, non-profits, tourism organizations, conservationists and other so-called “stakeholders” was created to assess the ban’s status.

In February, the committee released its recommendations, which included lifting the ban, implementing “regular but limited elephant culling,” and, most controversially, establishing the practice of canning elephant meat for pet food—a suggestion that has since been abandoned. Rather than advocating for outright culling, Masisi’s government now prefers the term selective “cropping.”

The Botswana government’s statement says that “the general consensus from those consulted was that the hunting ban should be lifted.” Indeed, the move is likely to prove popular with the country’s rural residents, who bemoan the animals’ destructive encroachment on human territory. Elephants can destroy a season’s worth of crops in just one night. Even though the government compensates farmers for losses or injuries, many locals argue that these measures are inadequate.

“The only solution is for the elephants to be reduced,” Twaemango Ndoze, a deputy headman of Seronga, a village in the Okavango Delta, tells Bloomberg’s Bax.

As Bax writes, the new ruling is in step with Masisi’s decision to suspend his predecessor’s “shoot to kill” poachers policy and Masisi’s removal of military-grade weapons from Botswana’s anti-poaching units.

It’s worth noting that many critics have decried the decision as a political gamble designed to win voters to Masisi’s Botswana Democratic Party. General elections are set to take place in October, and the resumption of hunting is sure to resonate with locals who are struggling to keep elephants off of their fields.

In a statement, Jason Bell, vice president for conservation with the International Fund for Animal Welfare, says, “This is a political move and not in the best interests of conservation in Botswana.”

Photo captured during a safari in Xigera Camp in Okavango Delta, Botswana. ( Marka/UIG via Getty Images)

Who is for a hunting ban?

Those in favor of a hunting ban are led largely by conservationists, arguing that legalized hunting will exacerbate threats posed to the already vulnerable species and transforming the one refuge left on the continent into an active danger zone. Some members of this group also cite ethical concerns.

As elephant expert and WildlifeDirect CEO Paula Kahumbu writes on Twitter, “There’s no such thing as ‘ethical hunting.’ It’s an oxymoron.”

Africa loses some 30,000 elephants to ivory poaching every year, but Botswana, according to National Geographic’s Bale, has so far “largely escaped” the crisis. (Last August, conservation group Elephants Without Borders claimed it had conducted an aerial survey that identified the bodies of 87 poached elephants by a nature preserve in northern Botswana, but the government soon refuted this story as a gross exaggeration; Kimon de Greef of The New York Times later wrote that critics, including scientists, believed the group overstated the situation in an attempt to influence policymakers’ assessment of the hunting ban.)

An elephant is killed on the African continent once every 15 minutes, as Don Pinnock, a conservation journalist and author of “The Last Elephants,” tells The New York Times’ de Greef and Specia. And Botswana is not immune to the the lure of illegal ivory trade; it is one of several African countries that has previously appealed for loosened restrictions on raw ivory trade. Still, Pinnock says, “Botswana is the last refuge for these elephants, and suddenly that refuge is going to start hunting them.”

Many environmentalists fear that the lifted ban is simply a precursor to renewed efforts aimed at legalizing the ivory trade. If this were to happen, WildlifeDirect’s Kahumbu explains to the Guardian’s Jason Burke, it would have a “catastrophic effect on elephants across Africa.”

Many supporters of the ban also cite ethical concerns. After all, National Geographic’s Bale writes, “There is no doubt that elephants are capable of empathy and emotion.”

Hundreds participated in the Global March for Elephant, Rhinos and Lions on October 7, 2017 in Gaborone, Botswana. (MONIRUL BHUIYAN/AFP/Getty Images)

In purely economic terms, suspending the ban carries the risk of hurting Botswana’s tourism industry, which is the country’s second highest source of foreign income after diamond mining. Currently, Botswana markets itself as what BBC News deems a “luxury safari destination,” attracting wealthy visitors eager to interact with elephants and other exotic animals in their native habitat.

“Our tourism has been really booming in recent years, and the elephant probably stands out above anything that people want to see,” Botswana's former-President Khama tells Bloomberg’s Bax. “If you’re going to start hunting and getting rid of them, you’re going to start devaluing that resource.”

Adding to the pressure is outrage from prominent international celebrities: Ellen DeGeneres, for example, has previously spoken out in support of boycotting Botswana unless the ban stays in place. Following this week’s announcement, the comedian tweeted, “President Masisi, for every person who wants to kill elephants, there are millions who want them protected. We’re watching.”

Who is against a hunting ban?

Proponents of lifting the ban point to the elephants’ negative impact on Botswana’s human communities. According to the IUCN, close human-elephant interaction in limited territory finds the towering behemoths killing local farmers’ livestock; stomping over crops; damaging grain stores; houses and water supplies; and even injuring or killing those who get in their way. Freely roaming elephants can also damage local ecosystems by tearing down trees.

Some 27,000 elephants live outside of the country’s wildlife management areas and regularly enter into conflicts with rural farmers, says Erik Verreynne, a wildlife veterinarian and consultant based in Gaborone, Botswana, in an interview with The New York Times’ de Greef and Specia.

The results can be devastating: As Gail Potgieter, a carnivore conservationist based in Botswana, writes in an editorial for local news outlet the Patriot, elephants roaming the country have killed 36 people over the past two years. The father of one victim, a man who was trampled to death while returning from a night out with friends, told reporters, “I used to like elephants, [but] they did a cruel thing to me.”

A man was trampled to death by an elephant while on his way to work in Kasane on April 26, 2019. Here, his mother holds his picture. (MONIRUL BHUIYAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Potgieter says that many local farmers have lost their annual harvest in the span of just a few nights. The elephants’ presence has “effectively impose[d] a curfew on any human movement after dark,” she adds, so simply visiting a friend’s house at the end of the day can become life threatening.

“Sharing their lives with a five-ton animal that threatens their lives, destroys their crops, damages their properties—I share their anguish,” as Mike Chase, director of Elephants Without Borders, tells National Geographic’s Bale. “When you’ve tried all kinds of alternatives … and they’re still dangerous, the animal has to be destroyed. At least the communities should be able to benefit by letting a hunter come in and pay to do it.”

Expanding on this sentiment, Verreynne points out that rural villages rarely benefit from income generated by safari tourism, but instead bear the highest costs of human-elephant conflict. Although hunting probably won’t “meaningfully reduce the number of elephants,” as Bloomberg notes, an influx in revenue could help cover damage and otherwise provide financial support for local communities. On average, a legal elephant hunt in neighboring countries costs about $45,000. Comparatively, a night in a luxury safari lodge runs closer to $355.

If hunting profits are high enough, it’s possible—however paradoxically—that some of the money will go toward conservation efforts. “By sacrificing 700 elephants per year,” Verreynne says, “we’re likely going to save more.”

A final point raised by advocates of legal hunting, particularly those based in Botswana, is the country’s authority to regulate wildlife within its own borders. Dan Ashe, former head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, tells Bale he doesn’t personally support trophy hunting, but adds that Botswana “always enjoyed a very good standing, … a reputation for professional management and relatively corruption-free government.”

What’s next?

According to the World Wildlife Foundation, agriculture and land development have driven African elephants into an increasingly smaller area over the past several decades. Between 1979 and 2007 alone, the species’ range shrank from three million square miles to just one million. Factor in competition for and conflict over land and resources, not only among elephants but also with humans, and the situation’s seriousness is apparent.

Poaching, meanwhile, hasn’t impacted southern Africa to the extent seen in eastern, central and western Africa but is becoming a growing regional threat. Crucially, a 2015 survey of 133 experts based in 11 African countries placed poaching at the top of concerning threats to wildlife. Trophy hunting, on the other hand, finished next to last.

Colonel George Bogatsu of Botswana Defence Force (BDF) marks a dead elephant which was recorded as killed by the poachers in Chobe, on September 19, 2018. (MONIRUL BHUIYAN/AFP/Getty Images)

As Bale of National Geographic writes, Botswana’s reversal may not actually result in the desired influx of trophy hunters. Although the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced plans to lift the ban on imported elephant trophies in 2017, the organization soon decided to shift to a case-by-case assessment model. It has since opted not to issue any relevant permits, making it unlikely that American hunters will even be able to bring their trophies home from Botswana.

It remains to be seen whether the move will bring in added revenue and curb the country’s level of human-elephant conflict—or, alternatively, lead to a decline in international tourism and pave the way for the legalization of ivory trade. For what it’s worth, Burke notes for the Guardian, some experts argue that widespread hunting will actually exacerbate conflict with local residents, as hunting makes elephants “fearful and aggressive.”

In an interview with Bloomberg’s Bax, Ronald Shamukuni, a member of Parliament whose cousin was recently killed by an elephant, concludes, “As much as we live with wildlife, there has to be a way of benefitting from them. Outsiders just don’t know what is going on.”

New Book Chronicles the Lives of Jack the Ripper’s Victims

Smithsonian Magazine

All too often, murder victims’ stories are relegated to the footnotes of history, overshadowed by not only their violent ends, but the looming specter of their killers. In The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, historian Hallie Rubenhold sets out to correct this imbalance, placing the focus on Polly Nichols, Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly—an eclectic group whose ranks include a fraudster, a traveling chapbook seller and a spurned wife who entered the workhouse after discovering her husband’s infidelity—rather than the still-unidentified serial killer who ended their lives in 1888.

“We always start with the murders, then focus on who Jack the Ripper was, to the point that he has become a supernatural creature,” Rubenhold explains in an interview with the Guardian’s Sian Cain. “... But he was a real person, who killed real people. This all happened. And our disassociation from the reality is what dehumanised these women. They have just become corpses.”

Perhaps the most significant takeaway of the new research is Rubenhold’s debunking of a popular myth surrounding the so-called “canonical five”: As Maya Crockett points out for Stylist, Jack the Ripper’s victims are often identified as prostitutes, but in actuality, there is no evidence tying Nichols, Chapman and Eddowes to the profession.

Kelly was the only one making a living as a sex worker at the time of the murders, according to a Penguin Random House blog post. Stride, despite finding herself entangled in a state-run prostitution ring back in her home country of Sweden, pursued alternative paths—including running a coffeehouse and, upon that venture’s failure, masquerading as a shipping disaster victim in order to defraud the well-to-do—upon immigrating to England.

What united these five females, in the words of the Times’ Daisy Goodwin, was not their occupation, but the fact that during the twilight of the Victorian era, “it was all too easy for women to end up sleeping on the streets.” Indeed, Frances Wilson writes for the Guardian, the five’s lives traced the same broad strokes: Born into poverty or reduced to it later in life, the women endured faithless and abusive husbands, endless cycles of childbearing and childrearing, and alcohol addiction. Sooner or later, they all ended up homeless, spending their nights in the winding alleys of London’s Whitechapel district.

Wanted poster seeking information regarding the murders (Public domain)

The Ripper’s first victim, Nichols, was murdered at age 43. According to Stylist’s Crockett, she was a blacksmith’s daughter who grew up in the fittingly titled Gunpowder Alley, a neighborhood known for inspiring the sleazy character Fagin’s lodgings in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. In 1876, Goodwin notes for the Times, Nichols, her husband and their three children moved into tenements built by philanthropist George Peabody to house the “deserving poor.” Unlike most cheap accommodation at the time, the apartment buildings boasted indoor lavatories and gas-heated water.

But within a few short years, Nichols, disgusted by her husband’s philandering, left the relative comfort of home for a workhouse, which Londonist describes as a seedy institution where society’s poorest labored in exchange for food and shelter. After a subsequent spell as a maid, Nichols landed on the streets, where she soon encountered the Whitechapel killer.

Unsurprisingly, the Guardian’s Wilson reports, an inquest into Nichols’ death revealed investigators’ attempts to blame her murder on the transient lifestyle she was leading. As a coroner reportedly asked her former roommate, “Do you consider that she was very cleanly in her habits?” (In other words, Wilson translates, “Was Nichols a prostitute and thus deserving of her fate?”)

Annie Chapman in 1869 (Public domain)

Chapman, the Ripper’s second victim, might have led a middle-class life had she not suffered from alcoholism. The wife of a gentleman’s coachman, she had eight children, six of whom, according to the Guardian’s Cain, were born with health issues stemming from their mother’s addiction. At one point, Helena Horton writes for the Telegraph, Chapman visited a rehabilitation center in search of treatment but was unable to make a full recovery. Alcoholism enacted a heavy toll on her marriage, and by the end of Chapman’s life, she, like Nichols, was sleeping on the streets of Whitechapel, a “fallen woman,” in Rubenhold’s words, destroyed not by sexual transgressions but the equally unenviable label of “female drunkard.”

Stride and Eddowes—victims three and four—were murdered within hours of each other the night of September 30, 1888. Stylist’s Crockett suggests that by the end of her life, Stride, the sex worker-turned-maid, coffeehouse proprietor and finally fraudster, may have been experiencing debilitating mental health issues linked with syphilis.

Eddowes, comparatively, came from a more advantageous background: Thanks to a primary school education, she was fully literate and, as the Guardian’s Wilson notes, able to transcribe ballads penned by her common-law partner, Thomas Conway. The couple roamed England, selling poetry pamphlets known as chapbooks, but after Conway became abusive, the two split up. Astonishingly, some 500 friends and family members turned up for Eddowes’ funeral.

An illustration of Mary Jane Kelly, the Ripper's last victim (Public domain)

Kelly, the Ripper’s last victim, was the only one of the five to be labeled “prostitute” on her death certificate. While all of the others were in their 40s at the time of the murders, she was just 25 years old. Given her age and profession, there is little reliable information regarding her life. But as Cain writes, Rubenhold’s research has led her to believe Kelly narrowly escaped sex traffickers during a trip to Paris. Upon returning to London, she moved between brothels and boarding houses; of the Ripper’s victims, she was the only one murdered in a bed rather than on the streets.

Significantly, Goodwin observes for the Times, Rubenhold dedicates little space to the man who killed her subjects and the gory manner in which he did so. Beyond positing that the women were asleep when murdered, making them easy targets for a prowling predator, The Five emphasizes the victims’ lives, not their deaths.

“At its very core, the story of Jack the Ripper is a narrative of a killer’s deep, abiding hatred of women, and our cultural obsession with the mythology only serves to normalise its particular brand of misogyny,” Rubenhold writes. “It is only by bringing these women back to life that we can silence the Ripper and what he represents.”

New Hotel in Turkey 'Floats' Above Ancient Ruins

Smithsonian Magazine

In 2009, the Asfuroğlu family began constructing what was supposed to be a new luxury hotel in Antakya, Turkey. But when workers broke ground, they discovered ancient ruins from Antioch, an important Roman city that once stood near the center of modern Antakya, reports Maureen O’Hare for CNN.

The find dashed the hoteliers’ original plans of building a “400-room concrete city hotel,” Sabiha Asfuroğlu Abbasoğlu, CEO of the Asfuroğlu Group’s Tourism and Hotel Division, tells Architectural Digest’s Stefanie Waldek.

Many developers would have abandoned the project then and there. But the family decided to preserve the archaeological treasures by integrating them into the luxury hotel.

The floor mosaic in the Necmi Asfuroğlu Archaeology Museum is the single largest in the world, covering more than 11,000 square feet. (Courtesy of the Museum Hotel Antakya)

Eleven years later, the 200-room Museum Hotel Antakya finally opened its doors—only to be shuttered shortly thereafter by the novel coronavirus pandemic. The hotel is accepting bookings for June onward but will remain closed until restrictions on travel and nonessential businesses are lifted.

To achieve the lofty goal of constructing a luxury hotel atop priceless artifacts, the Asfuroğlu family collaborated with the Antakya Municipality, the Hatay Archaeology Museum, and the Adana Conservation Council for Cultural and Natural Assets to conduct the largest archaeological excavation in Turkey since the 1930s.

A team of 200, including 35 archaeologists and five restorers, worked for 18 months to complete the excavation and restoration, according to Architectural Digest.

The team’s work yielded superlative finds, including the world’s largest single-piece floor mosaic (more than 11,000 square feet) and the first intact marble statue of the Greek god Eros. All told, the researchers unearthed 35,000 artifacts representing 13 civilizations dating back to the third century B.C.

This richly detailed floor mosaic dates to the second century A.D. and includes depictions of the mythical winged horse Pegasus, Greek god Apollo and the Nine Muses. (Courtesy of the Museum Hotel Antakya)

Enumerating the precious artifacts found as archaeologists dug deeper only served to underscore the project’s central dilemma: how to build a luxury hotel on top of fragile ruins.

Award-winning Turkish architect Emre Arolat devised the winning solution, opting to loft the hotel’s entire edifice on steel columns floating above what is now the publicly owned and operated Necmi Asfuroğlu Archaeology Museum. The project included 66 columns and roughly 20,000 tons of hand-welded structural steel—quadruple the amount used in the Eiffel Tower, per CNN.

As the building morphed to accommodate its antique understory, construction costs ballooned to more than four times their original estimate, totaling some $120 million. In all, more than six million hours of labor went into the hotel and museum’s creation.

The architects strategically planted the building’s steel columns in areas of the site that would not disturb any relics, reports Architectural Digest. Arolat and his associates also utilized modular construction to minimize potential construction impacts, slotting in prefabricated guest rooms much like Legos. Even larger public spaces such as the lobby, bar and restaurant were constructed off-site and inserted in this manner.

A walkway overlooking an ancient mosaic (Courtesy of the Museum Hotel Antakya)

Writing for Condé Nast Traveler, Laurel Munshower details several of the hotel’s archaeological highlights, including a second-century A.D. mosaic depicting mythical flying horse Pegasus preparing for Greek hero Bellerophon’s wedding; fifth-century Roman baths; and a fifth-century mosaic featuring peacocks, herons, hawks and pheasants flocking around Megalopsychia, the physical embodiment of magnanimity.

The Asfuroğlu family’s final product affords guests an aerial perspective of the fully excavated, 2,300-year-old ruins, as well as a view of the nearby Saint Pierre, a church impressively built inside a cave that represents one of Christianity’s oldest places of worship.

Though the hotel, with its unique combination of history and luxury, opened at an admittedly “difficult and unprecedented time,” a spokesperson for the museum tells CNN it has “been keeping all our guests informed and … taking the necessary steps, and implementing measures in preparation for the future.”

The spokesperson adds that staff will monitor the situation with COVID-19 closely, and “as things hopefully begin to normalize we anticipate a very busy last quarter of 2020.”

To "float" the hotel above the ruins, architects used 66 steel columns. (Courtesy of the Museum Hotel Antakya) The archaeological site beneath the hotel took 200 people 18 months and more than six million hours of work to completely excavate and restore. (Courtesy of the Museum Hotel Antakya) This mosaic features different types of birds flocking around the physical embodiment of magnanimity. (Courtesy of the Museum Hotel Antakya) The new Museum Hotel Antakya in Turkey "floats" above ancient ruins. (Courtesy of the Museum Hotel Antakya)

Revisiting the Artistic Legacy of Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock's Wife

Smithsonian Magazine

Lee Krasner was a constant innovator, going so far as to cut up and recycle earlier works that no longer met her high standards. She embraced the Cubist style popularized by Pablo Picasso, the “all-over” approach of Abstract Expressionism and the colorful form of collage seen in Henri Matisse’s late-career creations—but her versatility was long overlooked by the art world, which too often classified her as a fringe character in American Abstract Expressionist circles, better known as the dutiful wife of Jackson Pollock.

An upcoming exhibition at London’s Barbican Art Gallery strives to reframe Krasner's image, drawing on almost 100 works to trace the trajectory of her boundary-pushing, 50-year career. Titled Lee Krasner: Living Colour, the retrospective features early self-portraits, charcoal life drawings, large-scale abstract paintings, collages and selections from the famed “Little Images” series.

Born to Russian immigrants in 1908, Krasner decided to become an artist at age 14, enrolling in the only local art course open to girls at the time. As exhibition assistant Charlotte Flint writes in a Barbican blog post, the young Brooklyn native quickly abandoned traditional styles, opting instead for the bold modern movements pioneered by Picasso, Matisse and similarly avant-garde artists.

Image by © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York. Lee Krasner, "Mosaic Table," 1947, private collection (original image)

Image by © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy IVAM. Lee Krasner, "Abstract No. 2," 1947, IVAM Centre, Spain (original image)

Image by © The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy Kasmin Gallery, New York. Lee Krasner, "Palingenesis," 1971 (original image)

“Known for her fiercely independent streak, Krasner was one of the few women to infiltrate the New York School in the 1940s and ’50s,” writes Meredith Mendelsohn in an Artsy editorial. Krasner, already an established figure in the local art scene, met her future husband at a 1941 exhibition where both had works on view. The pair married in October 1945 and soon moved to a rural East Hampton farmhouse where they could better focus on their craft. While Pollock was busy creating his characteristic panoramic drip paintings, she was focused on producing her kaleidoscopic canvases.

According to the Guardian’s Rachel Cooke, the couple was estranged by the time of Pollock’s fatal 1956 car crash. After a day of drinking, the artist infamously lost control of the wheel, killing himself and Edith Metzger, a receptionist to Ruth Kligman (a painter and Pollock’s mistress at the time), upon impact; Kligman, who was also in the car, miraculously survived the crash.

Following Pollock’s death, Krasner moved into his studio—“there was no point in letting it stand empty,” she later said—and began crafting enormous paintings that required her to leap across the barn while wielding a long-handled brush ideal for maneuvering into distant corners.

“It was almost as if she had unfolded herself,” Cooke writes. “Henceforth, she could work on an unprecedented scale.”

According to Artsy’s Mendelsohn, Krasner’s “Umber Paintings”—also known as “Night Journeys,” the neutral-toned canvases date to between 1959 and 1962—marked a turning point in her career. Plagued by insomnia linked with Pollock’s death and her mother’s subsequent death in 1959, Krasner shifted styles, producing paintings with what art historian David Anfam calls a previously unseen “degree of psychological intensity” marked by “emotive scale and fierce movement.” Crucially, these works, rendered in chaotic swirls of brown, cream and white, differed dramatically from the abstract Color Field paintings popular at the time. Unlike the muted, serene canvases of Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, Krasner’s latest creations were gestural, overtly aggressive in a manner suggestive of her deceased husband’s drip paintings.

Lee Krasner, "Imperative," 1976. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. (© The Pollock-Krasner Foundation. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.)

Following the “Umber Paintings,” Krasner returned to the world of vibrant colors—a move demonstrative of her willingness to reinvent.

“The fixed image terrified her,” curator Eleanor Nairne tells Sotheby’s Joe Townend. “She felt that it was an inauthentic gesture to think that some singular imagery could contain everything that she was as a person. She went through these cycles of work and these rhythms, and it was often a very painful process.”

Throughout her career, Krasner often returned to earlier works. Rather than admiring her past accomplishments, however, she completely changed them, cutting and reorganizing fragments to create new pieces.

An untitled neo-Cubist work created in 1984, the year of her death, perhaps best epitomizes Krasner’s constant demand for reinvention. As IdeelArt’s Phillip Barcio writes, the canvas (her last known work) blends painting, charcoal drawing and collage, synthesizing the many mediums the artist used over her life in a “single, profound, elegant statement.”

Lee Krasner: Living Colour is on view at London’s Barbican Art Gallery from May 30 through September 1, 2019.

Smithsonian Historians Reflect on Kobe Bryant's Legacy as His Portrait Goes on View

Smithsonian Magazine

When the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture opened in September 2016, basketball legend Kobe Bryant urged the public to visit its hallowed halls, tweeting, “There is no greater testament to this country than the stories in this building.”

Bryant, who died along with his daughter Gianna in a helicopter crash Sunday at age 41, was one of the museum’s earliest supporters, donating some $1 million via the Kobe & Vanessa Bryant Family Foundation. This gift, says curator Damion Thomas, “was a statement to the world that this place matters and its important.

Today, the Washington, D.C. institution houses two artifacts related to Bryant: a basketball uniform, jersey and shorts worn by the Los Angeles Lakers star during the 2008 N.B.A. Finals, and a 2002 photograph that finds the rising star lounging on a couch in a Manhattan apartment.

Hailed as one of the sport’s greatest players, Bryant took the unusual step of skipping a stint in college basketball. Drafted right out of high school, he spent 20 years in the N.B.A., joining the Lakers in 1996 and retiring at the end of the 2015-16 season. Over the course of his lengthy career, he led the Lakers to five championships, earned 18 All-Star selections, scored 81 points in a single game and won two Olympic gold medals. He was, in the words of the New Yorker’s Louisa Thomas, someone who stood out “even in a league of larger-than-life personalities.”

Adds Thomas, “The word that is perhaps most often used to describe his remarkable career is ‘singular.’”

Photographer Rick Chapman’s 2007 portrait of Bryant embodies this singularity. Then just 29, the shooting guard had “already had this really tremendous impact on basketball,” says Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw, senior historian at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, where the selenium-toned print is now on view in a special “In Memoriam” display.

“[Chapman] emphasizes [...] this amazing set of tattoos, and also this introspective expression where he’s kind of looking off to the side as though he’s contemplating something in the distance,” adds Shaw.

Driven by a “seemingly endless reservoir of self-confidence,” according to the New York Times’ Marc Stein, Bryant was unabashedly ambitious in his intentions of surpassing basketball’s reigning champion, Michael Jordan. As Lewis of the African American History Museum says, referring to Bryant's nickname, this “‘Black Mamba’ mentality [...] became a mantra that people use far beyond the basketball field.” In coupling a desire to be the best with the hard work to back this goal up, adds Lewis, Bryant became a symbol of the seemingly contradictory phenomena of greediness, determination and excellence.

The jersey and shorts worn by Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers during game five of the 2008 NBA Finals are held in the collections of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. (NMAAHC, gift of Kobe Bryant)

No reflection on Bryant's legacy can be complete without reckoning with his 2003 sexual assault charge. The case was dropped when the victim declined to testify, and Bryant settled a separate civil suit filed by the 19-year-old hotel employee out of court. He later issued a public apology stating, “Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did.”

As Jemele Hill writes for the Atlantic, Bryant’s post-retirement accomplishments were “more impressive, in a way,” than his in-game stats. “Once the epitome of precocious arrogance,” she explains, “he evolved into being a true champion for others.”

In 2018, Bryant became the first individual to win both a basketball championship and an Academy Award, nabbing an Oscar for the animated short film “Dear Basketball.” Based on a poem he wrote on the eve of his retirement, the short served as Bryant’s “love letter to the sport,” per the Washington Post.

Outside of his cinematic triumphs, Bryant remained a key figure in the basketball world. He championed women’s sports, analyzed current N.B.A. players in a streaming show for ESPN and was poised to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame during his first year of eligibility.

Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna shared his love of the sport.

“Kobe was somebody who recognized all of the life lessons that you learned through basketball,” says Lewis. “And so [he used] basketball as a teacher, something that taught him how to be the person he was, [and ...] as a way to share those values with his daughter.”

The father-daughter duo attended a Lakers game together just last month and were on their way to Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy, where Gianna was scheduled to play an afternoon game coached by Bryant, when their helicopter crashed near Calabasas, California. All nine people onboard died.

As news of the tragedy broke, athletes, fans and celebrities alike took to social media to express their grief.

“My friend, a legend, husband, father, son, brother, Oscar winner and greatest Laker of all-time is gone,” wrote fellow basketball legend (and Bryant’s childhood hero) Magic Johnson on Twitter. “It’s hard to accept.”

President Barack Obama, meanwhile, called Bryant “a legend on the court” and said he was “just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act.”

Shaw, senior historian at the National Portrait Gallery, echoes these sentiments, telling Smithsonian magazine, “The legacy [Bryant] leaves behind is really one of great athletic achievement, of personal growth and of giving back.”

On a wider scale, says Lewis, Bryant embodies the distinct manner in which African American culture “is reflected in [...] and transforms basketball.”

The curator concludes, “When you think of the players whove done that, whose sense of play, style of play, and whose athletic ability sort of represents the larger kind of ideas of African American expressive culture, creativity [and] innovation, I cant think of many more people that I want to put on display than Kobe Bryant.”

Lily Katzman contributed reporting to this article.

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