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

Smithsonian Magazine

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

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 Pending approval by the California State Senate, this provision of the law will be repealed, eliciting a big sigh of relief from sushi chefs and sushi aficionados alike.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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gene Editing of Embryos Gives Insight Into Basic Human Biology

Smithsonian Magazine

For the first time, scientists edited a gene in fertilized human eggs critical to early development. The experiments helped the researchers learn about fundamental human biology in a way they could not through research on mice.

Researchers led by Kathy Niakan, a developmental biologist at the Francis Crick Institute in London, disabled a gene that codes for a protein called OCT4, known to be active in stem cells that can develop into all the cell types found in the body, reports Gretchen Vogel for Science. Turning the gene off ensured that cells from fertilized human eggs failed to form placental cells, yolk sac cells or even cells that would typically become a fetus.

Disabling the same gene in mouse embryos gives different results: Those embryos became balls of mostly placental cells. The findings suggest that the gene controls the fate of several cell lineages and plays a slightly different role in humans than in mice.

"This is opening up the possibility of using a really powerful, precise genetics tool to understand gene function," Niakan tells Rob Stein of NPR. "We would have never gained this insight had we not really studied the function of this gene in human embryos."

The researchers reported their results yesterday in Nature.

Even given that insight, the work is more of a proof of principle—a demonstration of the power and utility of the CRISPER-Cas9 genome editing technique, Vogel reports. The technology is sort of like a pair of molecular scissors that allow researchers to cut specific chucks of DNA from the genome and even replace the code with their own instructions.

Already scientists have wielded the tool to make a range of important advances and discoveries, such as engineering custom lab animals and testing potential cancer treatmentsRecent years have also seen several forays into the territory of human genome editing. In August, U.S-based scientists wielded CRISPR to correct a mutation that causes a deadly heart condition. (Other scientists have since questioned those recent claims, reports Ewen Callaway for Nature.)

However, for every step taken down this road, editorials and opinion pieces urge caution.

"The concerns are that we would be opening the door to fertility clinics vying to offer gene-editing to make future children taller or stronger or whatever they wanted to market," Marcy Darnovsky, head of a genetics watchdog group called the Center for Genetics and Society, tells NPR. "That could put us into a situation where some children were perceived to be biologically superior to other children."

Niakan and her colleagues' work, however, is a far cry from that situation. The researchers had to apply to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, an institution set up in the United Kingdom that rigorously reviews proposed embryo-editing research, Vogel reports for Science.

"Day 5 embryo" (left) shows the embryo on the fifth day of development and "Day 5 edited embryo" shows an edited embryo without OCT4. It does not form a proper blastocyst, showing that OCT4 is needed for blastocyst development (Dr Kathy Niakan/Nature)

In classic genetic studies, researchers routinely disable genes to figure out how they function, reports Ricki Lewis for the Genetic Literacy Project. But CRISPR allows them to do the same with greater precision and accuracy.

The new research used fertilized cells donated after people had undergone in vitro fertilization treatments. "When it comes to illuminating early human development, there’s nothing that measures up to using the real thing: human cells and tissues," writes Lewis.

The researchers disabled the gene that codes for OCT4 very early in development. In more 80 percent of the 41 fertilized ovums tested, the growing and dividing cells failed to form a hollow sphere of about 200 cells, called a blastocyst. Many in vitro fertilization efforts also fail at this stage, so it is a critical juncture for researchers to understand.

"By understanding the key genes that are involved in the development of the blastocyst, this can really inform our understanding of this important, critical window of human development," Niakan tells NPR.

In an editorial, Nature itself praised the research as an example of how human genome editing research should be done:

The particular requirements of studies will differ, but a strong framework for assessing them as early as possible seems the best way to ensure that they meet the highest standards. Regulators, funders, scientists and editors need to continue working together to define the details of the path forward for germline genome editing, so that the valuable resources and tools now at our disposal are used with good judgment.

Future experiments could use CRISPR to investigate the role of other genes. And experts will watch closely to monitor the ethics of that work.

Can Eggshells Crack the Case of Whether Dinosaurs Ran Hot or Cold?

Smithsonian Magazine

One of the hottest debates surrounding the dinosaurs is temperature: Were these "terrible lizards" who stalked, tromped and flew around the ancient world​ warm or cold blooded? A new study of dinosaur eggshells​ supports a third option—both. 

Since eggs grow their tough calcium carbonate shells inside their mother's body, looking at the chemical structures of those eggs can give scientists clues about the critter's temperature, according to the study recently published in the journal Nature Communications

Researchers analyzed eggshells from two groups of Cretaceous dinosaurs. One set of eggs belong to the behemoth titanosaurs—a group of long-necked herbivores that included the familiar Brontosaurus. The other eggs belong to the bipedal, omnivorous oviraptorid, which are smaller and more bird-like

Scientists can estimate the body temperature by looking for bonds between rare isotopes of carbon and oxygen (carbon-13 and oxygen-18) in the calcium carbonate minerals that make up eggshellsRachel Feltman reports for The Washington Post. More of those bonds means the eggshell formed at a cooler temperature in the mother’s body. 

This egg analysis suggested that tintanosaurs ran at a hot 99.7 degrees Fahrenheit, while the oviraptorid chilled at a cooler 89.4 degrees. But to tell if they were cold-blooded or warm-blooded scientist also needed to know the temperature of their environment.

The terms cold-blooded and warm-blooded are actually misnomers and are more properly termed ectotherms and endotherms. Like lizards warming in the sun, ectotherms need external heat sources to regulate their body temperatures, while endotherms generate their own heat through metabolism, explains a press release from the National Science Foundation. 

So to tell where the animals got their heat scientists examined fossilized soils that surrounded the eggs in present-day Mongolia and Argentina, which showed ancient temperatures of roughly 79 degrees Farenheit. Both dinosaurs were warmer than that, which could mean possible endothermy, but since the temperatures are so different, the researchers think a middle of the road approach was likely.

"This suggests that maybe they were warm blooded, but hadn't developed the high level of temperature regulation seen in mammals and birds today," lead study author Robert Eagle, of the University of California, Los Angeles, tells The Post. "They were kind of part way to evolving endothermy."

That puts dinosaurs in class with the catchy moniker mesotherms. Animals that subscribe to this strategy can generate and regulate their own body heat but don’t maintain as constant a temperature as mammals do. Modern animals including tuna, lamnid sharks and leatherback turtles are mesotherms, reports Alexandra Witze for Nature

Modern birds do fall squarely in the endotherm territory, with fast metabolisms and warm body temperatures to match. Since birds are the descendants of creatures like the oviraptoid, the researchers think their method might help track the evolution of endothermy in dinosaur lineages. 

As far as the dinosaur temperature debate goes, the results sound like a good compromise. 

Bibliotheca entomologica. Die Litteratur über das ganze Gebiet der Entomologie, bis zum Jahre 1862. Von Hermann August Hagen

Smithsonian Libraries
Alphabetical by authors, with a classified index.

Additions and corrections: Kraatz, G. Ergänzungen und nachträge zu Hagen's Bibliotheca entomologica. 1. stück. (In Berliner entomologische zeitschrift, 1874, 18. jahrg., p. 209-226) Schmidt-Göbel, N. H. (In Deutsche entomologische zeitschrift, 1876, 20. jahrg., p. 145-160) Dalla Torre, K. W. von. Addenda und corrigenda III (In Entomologische nachrichten; 1881, 7. jahrg., p. 45-48, 163-170)

Skadelige insekter i vore haver, af J. E. V. Boas ... Med 85 afbildninger for en stor del tegnede til "Haven"

Smithsonian Libraries
Særtryk af de Samvirkende danske haveselskabers tidsskrift "Haven," I.-V. aargang.

An Immersive Art Installation Will Temporarily Resurrect the Berlin Wall

Smithsonian Magazine

Twenty-nine years after Mikhail Gorbachev tore down the Berlin Wall, the fractious barrier between east and west is set to rise again.

Come October, The Art Newspaper’s Catherine Hickley reports that visitors to Germany’s capital city will find its horizon clouded by a towering replica of the original wall. This time, however, the wall will meet its demise after four weeks, providing an abbreviated reminder of the original structure’s 28-year hold over Berlin—and acting as the centerpiece of an immersive art installation designed to emulate life in an unfamiliar country.

According to Agence France-Presse, event organizers plan on constructing the facsimile wall out of 900 concrete slabs, each measuring around 12 feet tall. Those hoping to visit the city within a city must purchase online “visas” priced between €15 and €45 and surrender their cell phones upon arrival. In exchange, participants will receive internet-less devices that provide individually tailored tours of the walled-in space.

The Associated Press’ Kirsten Grieshaber reports that Thomas Oberender, director of the performance art-focused Berliner Festspiele, says the project does not strive to be a “Disney-style East Germany.” Instead, the installation, entitled “Dau Freiheit,” provokes an encroaching sense of unease as participants yield to the restrictions of an unfriendly surveillance state.

It’s unclear exactly what awaits those entering the city within a city, though Grieshaber reports that tours may include film viewings, concerts and interactive exhibitions. The smartphone guide could, for example, lead visitors to a fake scientific conference or a meeting with a counselor. If neither of these options sounds appealing, the device will suggest another activity. Locals whose homes happen to be located within the designated area, a block on the boulevard Unter den Linden, will go about their everyday lives as if nothing has changed, but Hickley notes that streets, lamps and signposts will suggest otherwise, exacerbating an unsettling awareness of the space's amorphous identity.

If the experience proves overwhelming, visitors can stop by viewing platforms situated throughout the pseudo-city. In addition to providing portals to the outside world, these windows mimic the Cold War platforms that allowed west Berliners to peek at their eastern counterparts.

Although the artists are still waiting on local authorities to give final approval of the project, they remain confident that the wall will be ready for opening on October 12. Four weeks later—on November 9, the 29th anniversary of the original Berlin Wall’s fall—the replica will be destroyed.

The upcoming art installation will feature a pseudo-city enclosed in 900 12-foot slabs designed to mimic the original Berlin Wall. (Meilan Solly)

According to the German broadcast network Deutsche Welle, “Dau Freiheit” builds on an earlier performance artwork and filmmaking endeavor concocted by an eclectic Russian artist, Ilya Khrzhanovsky.

In 2005, Khrzhanovsky decided to film a biopic about Soviet scientist Lev Landau, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and ardent supporter of free love. Landau’s nickname, “Dau,” provided inspiration for the project’s title.

By 2009, the seemingly straightforward film had ballooned into a project of unseen proportions: As James Meek recounts for the London Review of Books, Khrzhanovsky erected an enormous set in the northeastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, Landau’s one-time home and research base, and recruited hundreds of volunteers to populate his makeshift city for the duration of filming.

The community became known as the Institute, and from 2009 to 2011, its “residents” acted as if they were truly living in the mid-20th century Soviet Union, shunning smartphones, social media and similarly anachronistic practices. Those tempted by 21st-century inventions knew that Khrzhanovsky, who had equipped the set with surveillance cameras, was always watching, ready to dole out punishments ranging from simple fines to harsh interrogations ending in confinement alongside actual inmates hired out from the local Kharkiv jail.

“Hundreds of volunteers, few of them professional actors, were filmed living, sleeping, eating, gossiping, working, loving, betraying each other and being punished in character, in costume, with nothing by way of a script,” Meek writes.

Over the course of the two-year shoot, several notable figures “infiltrated” the Institute. Marina Abramović, the self-proclaimed “grandmother of performance art,” and German director Tom Tykwer both filmed segments set to be featured in the upcoming installation. Russian journalist Michael Idov wrote a GQ feature detailing life on the set, which he described as a “panopticon” that tends to draw participants in with all the finesse of a Venus flytrap.

Some crew members left their burgeoning careers behind in order to live full-time in Kharkov. Others brought their families to the set, or even started new families in this simulated world.

Khrzhanovsky’s project is not without controversy: Idov’s story featured a female crew member’s account of a sexually inappropriate job interview with the director that left her “uncontrollably shaking with disgust.” Another former staffer noted, “Working here is like being that guy who wanted to be killed and eaten, and finding a maniac who wants to kill and eat you. Perfect reciprocity.”

Following reports of the upcoming Berlin Wall installation, local news outlet Der Tagesspiegel also published an investigation suggesting that much of the funding for both the original film project and the upcoming installation comes from Sergey Adoniev, a Russian businessman reputed to be a member of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.

Still, “Dau Freiheit” is poised to move forward. The installation will feature the world premiere of Khrzhanovsky’s film, which has been stuck in production since the shoot’s end, and promises to be, according to Berliner Festspiele head Thomas Oberender, “a mixture of social experiment, artistic experiment and ... an impressive form of world-building.”

The project’s overall aim, organizers concluded at a press conference, is to launch "a political and social debate about freedom and totalitarianism, surveillance, co-existence and national identity."

Atlas of the rare vascular plants of Ontario / edited by George W. Argus et. al. = Atlas des plantes vasculaires rares de l'Ontario / publié sous la direction de George W. Argus et. al

Smithsonian Libraries
Text in English and French in parallel columns.

"This atlas is the second phase of a continuing study of Ontario rare plants that began with the publication of The rare vascular plants of Ontario (Argus & White 1977)."--Introduction.

Rivista italiana di paleontologia

Smithsonian Libraries
Editors: 1895-96, C. Fornasini (with V. Simonelli).--1897-1900, V. Simonelli (with P. Vinassa).--1901- P. Vinassa.

Dipterologische studien, von Th. Becker. Dolichopodidae. B. Nearkitische und neotropische region

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"Amerikanische literatur": 2d p. after p. 394.

Stamp-collector's magazine

Smithsonian Libraries
Publisher's bindings of green or blue cloth have gilt title and central ornament with mounted postage stamp in center.

Anweisung, wie die verschiedenen Seltenheiten der Naturgeschichte zu sammlen, zuzubereiten, zu erhalten und zu verschicken sind : nebst einer Anweisung, wie die Bäume, die Pflanzen, die Saamen und verschiedene andere Seltenheiten der Naturgeschichte über Meer zu verschicken sind : samt vielen Kupfern / aus dem französischen übersezt von Wolfgang Jäger

Smithsonian Libraries
The first work in this volume is a translation of Etienne François Turgot's Mémoire instructif sur la manière de rassembler, de preparer, de conserver, et d'envoyer les diverses curiosités d'histoire naturelle (Paris, 1758). The second work, "Anweisung, wie die Bäume, die Pflanzen, die Saamen und verschiedene andere Seltenheiten der Naturgeschichte über Meer zu verschicken sind" (p. 169-266), is a translation of Duhamel du Monceau's Avis par le transport par mer des arbres, des plantes vivaces, des semences, et de diverses autres curiosités d'histoire naturelle. See BM (Nat. hist.), v. 3, p. 1284.

Some plates are signed by the illustrator Durand and/or the engraver J.M. Seligmann.

"Bericht an den Buchbinder" appears on p. [1] (3rd group).

Head- and tail-pieces; initials; vignette on t.p.

Signatures: )(⁸ A-Q⁸ R⁶.

The final p. is blank.

Piano maker William Steinway saw the future in suburbia in the 1880s, so he built a factory and then an entire village

National Museum of American History

Piano manufacturer William Steinway described his vision of suburban America to Congress in 1883, but in his own life the future had already arrived.

Citing the horrors of tenement houses for workers in New York City, Steinway told the Senate Committee on Education and Labor: "The only thing that I can imagine is to do as we have done, remove the very large factories … from out of the city of New York into the suburbs" in order "to give the workingmen a chance to live as human beings ought to live."

A sepia photo of a man in a suit holding a hat with one foot on a step of what appears to be a large house

Eleven years before speaking to Congress, Steinway opened a new factory across the East River from Manhattan. This factory, located in what is now the Astoria neighborhood of Queens, still makes pianos today. The rural area was not then part of New York City, but Steinway saw the potential. He ended up creating an entire company town, including worker housing, and suggested to a Senate committee that other manufacturers follow his lead.

But Steinway wasn't driven solely by altruism. He wanted to get away from unions who were striking piano manufacturers in Manhattan.

"We sought a place outside the city to escape the machinations of the anarchists and socialists" who "were continually breeding discontent among our workmen and inciting them to strike," Steinway said, according to the book "Steinway & Sons" by Richard K. Lieberman, published in 1995.

We know a lot about Steinway because he kept a daily diary from April 1861 through November 1896, the month he died. The diary, which can be viewed here, resides in the National Museum of American History's Archives Center in our Steinway and Sons Records and Family Papers 1857–1919.

While Steinway made pianos for the rich, he didn't forget the working people and the poor as the years went by.

A shoot downward of a garden. There is a path running through from the road, creating a circular space in which plants and flowers grow. There are lattices and other structures in the garden. One can see the street and buildings beyond it, though there are trees throughout the area.

William Steinway certainly hadn't forgotten that his family started Steinway & Sons from scratch in 1853. He arrived in New York as a teenager in 1850 with his parents and siblings. The family (who were piano makers in Germany) worked with New York piano firms to learn the American method of manufacture. This made it possible for Steinway to make and market some of the most famous pianos in the world.

Steinway wasn't shy about letting reporters know about his good deeds. In his diary entry of March 16, 1895, he wrote, "N.Y. World and today's Evg papers have the News that I have placed 200 Acres of land close to the Ferries in Long Island City at the disposal of the charity organization for cultivating purposes by the poor."

A photograph of a number of men standing in front of a greenhouse. Their clothes are not very fine and they all have hats on. There are overgrown plants and trees behind the greenhouse. The men hold different tools like a scythe or a rake

When the charity's farm made a surplus of $6,000 and offered the money to Steinway as a payment, he refused.

"He told the association that he was not in the habit of doing charity by halves, and therefore it was his desire that the surplus money be employed in furnishing seed, fertilizers and agricultural implements for the following season," the New York Times reported on July 12, 1896, in a spread about Steinway's creation in Astoria.

His village transformed this rural area into a community of paved streets, trees, electric trolley lines, a firehouse, a church, a kindergarten, a library and a beach resort, in addition to worker houses.

Steinway also saw the disadvantages of his generosity. There are repeated expressions in his diary of annoyance with a constant stream of "mendicants," his word for those who were always asking him for money. Some were people he knew, who might have needed help for medical reasons, wanted to invest in a business, or were seeking help with a musical career. He wrote that he was "hounded to death" by them, once encountering "a perfect cavalcade of mendicants," and facetiously claiming to be "badly retarded by lots of mendicants."

Steinway established a land office at the Astoria factory to provide maintenance to rented properties. He sold other homes and also sold land. He financed most public services in the village, graded and paved the streets, and developed some of the nation's first electric trolley lines, in part to bring workers living in the city from the ferry dock to their jobs.

For William Steinway in the late 1800s, the future was now.

Larry Margasak is a retired Washington journalist who writes frequent articles for the museum's blog. Past stories included William Steinway's bizarre experience as chairman of New York's presidential electors in 1893, his construction of a resort that now sits under the runways of LaGuardia Airport, and Hollywood during World War II.

volunteer Larry Margasak
Posted Date: 
Thursday, May 4, 2017 - 08:00
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Getting a Push Notification on Your Cell Phone? It Could Be Warning You About an Earthquake

Smithsonian Magazine

In the well-developed parts of the world prone to temblors, including the West Coast of the United States, Mexico, parts of Europe, China and Japan, governments have invested in sensitive earthquake detection systems. But according to Sarah Minson, a U.S. Geological Survey geophysicist, high-risk regions without seismic monitoring could benefit by using satellite-tracking technology inside a smartphone, a crowdsourced key to early earthquake warnings.

In 2011, when a minor (but relatively powerful) quake rattled most of the United States eastern seaboard, there wasn’t (and still isn’t) a dedicated early warning system as part of the regional seismograph network. It’s the same throughout much of South America, the South Pacific and east and central Asia, but those places lack warning systems for sheer economic reasons—standard earthquake detection equipment is expensive.

In a crowdsourced earthquake early warning system, GPS sensors in smartphones near an earthquake's epicenter could sense the resulting ground displacement, and send warnings to more distant smartphones before the shaking reaches them. (Emiliano Rodriguez Nuesch and Martin Zeta of Pacifico)

Smartphones could fill that gap, according to Sarah Minson. She is the lead author of a new study in Science Advances that examines the potential for using cell phones’ GPS data as an early warning network.

Cheap yet loaded with sophisticated technology, cell phones are everywhere: there are an estimated 7 billion mobile devices in use across the globe.

“People are recognizing that cell phones can be incredible tools for science,” Minson says. “The advantage of crowdsourcing is that there are a ton of sensors, but also that there are a ton of little handheld computers that are processing power,” able to crunch data quickly.

But mobile GPS data hasn’t been seriously looked at for seismic use, primarily because cell phones can’t tell your exact location with great precision, and because people fiddle around with lots of apps unrelated to earthquake listening. What phones are good at, however, is talking with triangulated satellites to detect your very incremental movements from one spot to another—as little as half an inch from a previous position.

That motion tracking is the key to earthquake detection, where measurements of displacement, or how much a fault has moved, are as important as how much shaking a person experiences. If enough people have devices recording and reporting that movement, an app designed to transmit a warning based on that aggregated data would make for a fairly accurate early warning tool.

Most quaking you feel during an earthquake is caused by secondary waves, or s waves, which travel through Earth at a rate of two miles per second. But data travels much faster, quickly outpacing poky s waves in regions miles away from the epicenter. Even a few seconds’ warning time can be valuable—time enough, say, for a surgeon to put down a scalpel, or to allow a teacher to get students under tables. There’s also some calming virtue in being forewarned of a sudden shaking.

So in the case of the Mineral, Virginia earthquake, cities like Washington, D.C., 84 miles away, would have had around 40 seconds of advance notice. Depending on the parameters in a potential mobile phone app, Minson thinks with enough users near the epicenter contributing data to rule out a false alarm, a warning could be triggered and sent out in seconds. 

Relatively few devices would need to be engaged. As part of her research, Minson matched up actual GPS data from 462 monitoring stations in Japan captured during the 2011 magnitude-9.0 Tohoku quake with hypothetical data that mirrors what a cell phone would generate in such a situation. The curves that measured the permanent shift of the Earth’s crust at the stations aligned very closely. Minson estimates that just .0004 percent of Japan’s population of 127 million would need to be carrying cell phones to collect the same data as those monitoring stations.

There are a few catches, though. First of all, the technique really only works for fairly strong earthquakes, above a 7 magnitude on the Richter scale. Secondly, there aren’t many cell phones hanging out on the seafloor, where many quakes originate. And lastly, phone companies haven’t shown much inclination so far to allow access to the raw location data their devices collect.

“None of this can happen unless there comes a way to get access to the data on the phones,” Minson says.

The geophysicist is already working on launching a USAID-funded pilot program over the next year to deploy hundreds of cell phones and secondary external GPS sensors. Spread out in a network across Chile, a region with high seismic activity yet without a functional early warning system, researchers will be able to gather real-time data from the external sensors as earthquakes happen.

John Vidale, a seismologist with the University of Washington who has long been involved in work on early warning systems, praises Minson’s idea of mining cell phones for GPS data as sensible and innovative. However, he points out that phones can never replace sensitive scientific equipment.

“Cell phone earthquake early warning systems may be a great solution in some situations, particularly in the Third World and where earthquakes are infrequent,” says Vidale. “But phones will never have the emplacement deep underground that gives dedicated seismometers their tremendous sensitivity. I expect places such as Japan, Taiwan and the West Coast will ante up for more sophisticated and dedicated systems.”

Minson notes that one great advantage of cell phones is that they are frequently updated.

“If we’re borrowing data from crowdsourced cell phones, the users are helpfully replacing their old phones with the best technology every two years,” she says. “We’d be getting everyone’s fanciest and best data.”

Decorating notes

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Trade literature.

Welcome to Hominid Hunting

Smithsonian Magazine

Hummingbirds dodge and weave

Smithsonian Insider

Tweaks in muscle and wing form give different hummingbird species varying levels of agility. The deft turns of hummingbirds in flight, as shown in a […]

The post Hummingbirds dodge and weave appeared first on Smithsonian Insider.

Stephen Hawking, the Expansive Cosmologist Who Shone Light on the Universe, Has Died at 76

Smithsonian Magazine

Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking has died at the age of 76, reports Dennis Overbye at The New York Times. Hawking was one of the most well-known scientists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, recognized for his work on black holes, his efforts to communicate complex cosmology to the general public and a sense of humor said to be "as vast as the universe."

Despite a grim diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease—at the age of 21 that gave him just a few years to live, Hawking survived another 55 years, cruising around the world in an electric wheelchair and speaking through his iconic speech synthesizer during the last 30 years of his life.

Condolences have poured in from mourners from around the world, including U.K. prime minister Theresa May, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and theoretical physicist Michio Kaku who told Overbye, “Not since Albert Einstein has a scientist so captured the public imagination and endeared himself to tens of millions of people around the world.”

According to his family, Hawking passed away peacefully at his home early on Wednesday morning. “We are deeply saddened that our beloved father passed away today. He was a great scientist and an extraordinary man whose work and legacy will live on for many years,” his children Lucy, Robert and Tim write in a statement. “His courage and persistence with his brilliance and humour inspired people across the world. He once said, ‘It would not be much of a universe if it wasn’t home to the people you love.’ We will miss him forever.”

After a childhood spent in Oxford and St. Albans, Hawking attended university at Oxford before moving to Cambridge for his PhD work. There he began work on singularities, or points in space where the gravity of a collapsing star would warps space-time into an infinitely dense point, creating a black hole.

According to his friend and collaborator Roger Penrose, who penned an obituary in The Guardian, the pair worked together to show that if there was a big bang that started the universe, it originated from a singularity. In 1974, Hawking released his most famous academic paper detailing what became known as Hawking radiation. Contrary to previous theories about black holes, he showed that they radiate energy, gradually losing mass in the process. Ian Sample at The Guardian reports that for very small black holes, that radiation would eventually lead to a massive explosion, releasing 1 million megatons of energy.

The BBC reports that discovery pushed Hawking into one of the great physics debates of recent decades, the information paradox. Hawking argued that any information—in particular things like the spin, mass and temperature of particles entering a black hole—would be destroyed when the black hole evaporated away or exploded. Others argued that the information would be preserved and released eventually released by the black hole. In 2004, while in a pub with some of his students, Sample reports, Hawking cranked up the mic on his synthesizer and made a public declaration that he relented and agreed that information would be preserved by black holes, though exactly how that information escapes when the black hole dissipates is up for debate.

While his academic achievements earned him countless honors, including the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, the chair held by Sir Isaac Newton and other luminaries in math and physics, and election to the Royal Society at the very young age of 32, Hawking is arguably best known to the general public as a science communicator. In 1988, he published A Brief History of Time, a synthesis of cosmology and his own work on black holes for layman scientists that has sold 10 million copies. The book spawned a documentary and illustrated edition that made Hawking one of the most recognized scientists in the world.

In a follow-up book, 1993’s Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays, he explained his motivation for taking his work directly to the public. “If we do discover a complete theory [of the universe], it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists,” he wrote. “Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason — for then we would know the mind of God.” (Hawking was using the term "God" loosely. He was a vocal atheist and was not a fan of organized religion.)

In other popular books, Hawking continued to bring cosmology to the mainstream, and became a popular figure himself. He appeared on television shows including “The Simpsons,” “Big Bang Theory” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and his voice was also included on the 1994 Pink Floyd album The Division Bell. He was portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in the 2004 dramatization of his early life Hawking and by Eddie Redmayne, who won an Oscar in 2014 for his portrayal of the physicist in The Theory of Everything, which told the story of his first marriage and how he dealt with his diagnosis of ALS.

Overbye opines that the most incredible part of Hawking’s life is the fact that he had a life and career at all. While ALS, a motor neuron disease, often kills people who have it relatively quickly, Hawking’s disease progressed slowly. In the 1970s, he slowly lost the ability to walk and his speech weakened. After a bought of pneumonia in 1984, he lost his speech. A colleague outfitted him with his iconic speech synthesizer that allowed him to select letters and words via a small joystick and later by moving his eyes and twitching his cheek. (He complained, however, that the synthesizer gave him an American accent.)

Hawking continued traveling the globe, giving lectures and visiting new places, such as Antarctica, where he celebrated his 60th birthday with a hot-air balloon ride. Among his many adventures, the British cosmologist once experienced floating weightlessly in a zero-gravity on a Boeing 727. He was also known to zoom around Cambridge in his electric wheelchair at unsafe speeds. He was never able to make a trip into space, something he had planned with Richard Branson, who in 2017 offered him a seat on a future Virgin Galactic flight. “I want to show that people need not be limited by physical handicaps as long as they are not disabled in spirit,” as he told Overbye in an interview a decade earlier, back in 2007.

In recent years, Hawking has become something of a public intellectual with reporters asking his opinions on many subjects. Most famously, in 2010, Hawking suggested that making contact with aliens would be a bad idea, and that the outcome would be similar to when Columbus made contact with Native Americans. He offered similar warnings about the development of unregulated artificial intelligence in 2014.

Just last week, he was in the news for discussing what the universe might have been like before the Big Bang—a complex topic that required physics, astronomy, and an outsized human imagination to distill down for the public. A topic, in other words, that was perfectly suited to Hawking.

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