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Interior with Three Pears

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Hedge and Cypress

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Mirror Lake and Reflections, Yosemite Valley, Mariposa County, California

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Like Carleton Watkins, his better-known competitor, Charles Weed recognized the pictorial dividend to be gained by showing Yosemite’s glorious geological features in duplicate, using the valley’s lakes as reflecting ponds. Weed first traveled to what was then known as “Yo-Semite,” in 1859, but with a relatively small camera. He returned in 1865 with a larger model capable of using what were called mammoth plates. Like Watkins, he sold his prints to buyers eager to own a photograph of majestic natural beauty.

A Democracy of Images: Photographs from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2013

Striped Tablecloth with Two Apples

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Market, 8th Avenue and 135th Street, Harlem

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Lengthening Shadows

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Philosophy Illuminated by the Light of the Moon and the Setting Sun [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
"Salvador Dalí: Retrospective, 1920-1980," Paris: Musée National d'Art Moderne, 1979, no. 260.

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Safety, BW.

Gonzalez.

Frozen Waterfall [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Alternate title transcribed from negative.

Image depicts an earlier version of the painting.

Franklin, Jamie and Jake Milgram Wien, "Rockwell Kent's 'Egypt': Shadow and Light in Vermont," Bennington, VT: Bennington Museum, 2012, fig. 8.

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Glass, BW.

Frozen Waterfall [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Image depicts an earlier version of the painting.

Franklin, Jamie and Jake Milgram Wien, "Rockwell Kent's 'Egypt': Shadow and Light in Vermont," Bennington, VT: Bennington Museum, 2012, fig. 8.

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Glass, BW.

Aurora Borealis

Smithsonian American Art Museum
The ship and sled team in this image belonged to Frederic Church's friend, polar explorer Dr. Isaac Hayes. Hayes had led an Arctic expedition in 1860, and gave his sketches from the trip to the artist as inspiration for this painting. Hayes returned from his voyage to find the country in the thick of the Civil War, and in a rousing speech vowed that "God willing, I trust yet to carry the flag of the great Republic, with not a single star erased from its glorious Union, to the extreme northern limits of the earth." Viewers understood Church's painting of the Aurora Borealis (also known as the northern lights) as a portent of disaster, a divine omen relating to the conflict.

Exhibition Label, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2006

Virga

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Why Orange Snow Fell Over Eastern Europe

Smithsonian Magazine

The orange snow was first seen falling from the sky throughout Eastern Europe in late March. Since then, the phenomenon has drawn comparisons to Martian-like landscapes across social media.

But, as Lydia Smith of The Independent reports, there’s a perfectly normal explanation for the orange-tinged snow: it's the result of sand storms in North Africa.

“There has been a lot of lifted sand or dust originating from North Africa and the Sahara, from sand storms which have formed in the desert,” Steven Keates of the Met Office, UK's national weather service, tells Smith. “As the sand gets lifted to the upper levels of the atmosphere, it gets distributed elsewhere.”

Where the particles of the sand are deposited depends on the direction of the wind, and when it rains or snows, it comes back down, leaving a hint of color behind.

The clouds of light brown dust were even picked up by NASA’s Terra satellite, according to Weather Channel meteorologist Brian Donegan.

Keates tells Smith that the phenomenon isn’t so strange. Last year, skies in the UK turned red, for instance, thanks to tropical air and dust traveling from the Sahara.

According to the BBC, this particular orange snow occurs once every five years, but this year's just appears to be a little more sandy than recent dustings; according to the outlet, people have even said they can taste and feel the sand in their mouths.

Saharan dust can travel far, Donegan writes. In the past, it’s traveled more than 4,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, making it all the way to the Texas Gulf Coast in 2016.

Moonlight Helps White Barn Owls Stun Their Prey

Smithsonian Magazine

Barn owls are skilled nocturnal hunters, swooping across open landscapes to scout out small rodents that scurry below. But scientists have long been puzzled by a trait that seems like it would work against the birds during their nighttime prowls. Some barn owls boast a brilliant white plumage—an unusual feature for an animal that should, in theory, need to remain inconspicuous against the darkened sky.

The bellies of Tyto alba, as the common barn owl is formally known, can range in color from dark red to bright white. The reason for this variation in hue hasn’t been clear, but researchers behind a new study in Nature Ecology & Evolution suspected that white barn owls would be especially disadvantaged during the full moon, when light from the hovering celestial body would make them particularly visible to prey.

“As it turns out,” study authors Luis Martín San José García, Alexandre Roulin and Almut Kelber write in the Conversation, “we couldn’t have been more wrong.”

Scientists have been tracking a population of barn owls in Switzerland for more than 20 years, following their hunting behaviors with cameras and GPS trackers, while also taking note of their breeding patterns and the development of their offspring. For the new study, the researchers took this wealth of data and measured it against the lunar cycle, focusing specifically on changes in the moon’s brightness. They found that the reddest barn owls seemed to have a harder time hunting on moonlit nights; the birds brought less food back to their nests, which in turn impacted their reproductive success.

“[T]he survival prospects of nestlings raised by the reddest parents were lower when maximal nestling growth occurred during full-moon nights,” the study authors note. This phenomenon was only observed among the youngest chicks, likely because their small size made them more vulnerable than their older siblings.

But, to the researchers’ surprise, this wasn’t the case for white barn owls, which didn’t seem to be affected by the brightness of the moon. In fact, the whitest owls may have fared better during moonlit nights, “as suggested by the survival of their youngest nestlings raised being positively related to moonlight,” the study authors note.

These results were baffling to the researchers. So they decided to try and get a sense of moon-lit, pearly-white barn owls from the perspective of the birds’ favorite snack: the vole, a small rodent related to hamsters. The team placed voles in a darkened room that was fitted with halogen lights to mimic full and new moon light conditions. Because live owls would be difficult to work with, the team exposed the voles to three taxidermied barn owls—one white and two red—that had been shaped into a flying position. The owls were suspended from a zipline, to make it seem as though they were descending upon their prey.

During the experiment, the research team was watching to see if and when the voles froze, a common prey behavior that, in this case, would indicate that the rodents had seen the owl. The team found that the voles were better able to detect the owls, regardless of color, under full moon conditions. But crucially, when the glow of the “moon” was particularly bright, the voles stayed frozen for five seconds longer if the owl was white.

In the wild, this would give white barn owls extra time to swoop in and snatch their prey, which may explain why they excel at moonlight hunting. The researchers theorize that voles, which probably see owl plumages in varying shades of grey, freeze up in the face of moon-lit white owls because “they’re scared by bright light reflected from the white plumage,” San José García, Roulin and Kelber write in the Conversation. Rodents are in fact known to get spooked by bright lights; medical researchers testing anxiety medications shine light on rodents to trigger their fear response.

“The beautiful thing about this study is that it doesn’t just aim to describe [how the owls’ color affects survival]—it also describes the mechanism behind the process,” Maria Delgado, a behavioral ecologist at Spain’s University of Oviedo in Spain who was not involved in the new research, tells Katherine J. Wu of PBS.

The paper also offers new insight into a little-explored corner of scientific research—namely, how moonlight impacts the evolution of nocturnal species. “Moonlight itself can select for different colorations,” San José García tells James Gorman of the New York Times. “Our study shows very well that it has strong effects on the owls.”

Bright white feathers may confer some disadvantages—like making the birds more visible to such competitors as carrion crows, which have been known to harass barn owls during the day. This could explain why white barn owls continue to have red counterparts. But as San José García, Roulin and Kelber note in the Conversation, the new study emphasizes the importance of protecting the habitats of nocturnal wildlife that seem to exist in a delicate harmony with the night sky.

“Minimising light pollution,” they write, “and letting the night be as dark as the moon dictates could benefit beautiful barn owls.”

Striking Mars Image Shows Strange Boulder Piles and Undulating Sand Dunes

Smithsonian Magazine

The strange features on the surface of Mars never disappoint. And last week the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) captured another otherworldly sight: undulating sand dunes and piles of boulders. As Amanda Kooser reports for CNET, though both of these features can be found on Earth, the pattern and repetition of the tableau in the far North of the Martian landscape is arresting.

The MRO captured the image while tracking the shifts of sand dunes near Mars’ North Pole whirling along about 200 miles above the Martian surface, Mike Wall writes for Space.com.​ The dark, curved sand dunes are immediately evident, but as Kooser writes, it's the pattern of the speckled region between the dunes that intrigued scientists. 

When magnified, the region displays prominent angled parallel stripes that alternate dark and light. And between the stripes lie neatly organized piles of boulders at regular distances.

A pile of neatly-placed boulders appears in the dark stripes of Mars' landscape. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

So what does the pattern mean?

Researchers believe it might have something to do with a phenomenon called “frost heave.” During this process, cyclical freezing and thawing causes water in the soil to expand and contract, which can result in piles like the ones spotted on Mars.

At least that’s the way frost-heave processes work on Earth, where this cycle of temperature changes can take about a year. Scientists still haven't sorted out how exactly the patterns form, but the process can result in a range of surface features—from the hummocky landscapes of Iceland to regular circular patterns in Svalbard. And the effects can be quite strong. As Kooser reports, frost heave is capable of moving even roads and buildings.

According to a NASA press release, the Martian process could be a result of the changes in the planet's orbit around the Sun, which takes around 687 Earth days.

Decades ago, researchers didn't believe frost heaving could happen on Mars. But over the years, researchers have learned that not only can it happen, but the features are actually quite common on this far-flung world. Then, in 2008, the Pheonix rover actually landed in an area of repetitive patterns left from frost-heave action.

The MRO arrived to Mars in March 2006, after launching the previous summer. Since then, it has looked for signs of water activity and possible locations for future missions, Wall reports. It's also allowed NASA to study the many processes that shape Mars' landscape. And this latest image is no different, displaying the fascinating results of repetitive freezing and thawing.

The Equinox: See It for Yourself This Weekend

Smithsonian Magazine

The Intihuatana stone at Machu Picchu casts no shadow at noon on either equinox. Photo courtesy of Flickr user snikrap.

On September 22, as the sun nears its zenith in the Peruvian sky, the shadow of a small slab of granite at Machu Picchu disappears at noon. This is no accident. For this rock is called the “hitching post of the sun”—Intihuatana, to the ancient Incas, who celebrated the equinox at this site. Some bright mind among them determined that this day was a special one, and so he—or she—carved the 26-inch-tall stone so that it faces at a very particular northward angle—about 13 degrees, the latitude of Machu Picchu. The effect is that at noon on both the spring and fall equinoxes, for just an instant, the stone’s shadow disappears. The sun, so it seemed to the ancients, was at those moments “hitched” to the end of the stone.

Elsewhere on the equinox, various sites similarly demonstrate ancient cultures’ recognition—and precise understanding—of the sun’s cycles through the sky. In the Yucatán this weekend? Then dog-ear that trashy paperback, drag yourself away from the time-share pool and visit Chichen Itza. Have a seat in the grass with the other sun lovers and watch. Due to the particular geometry and angles of construction of the Kukulcán pyramid, a dramatic shadow undulates down the stairway on the structure’s northern face on both the spring and fall equinoxes. At the base of the stairway are large snake heads carved into the rock, and the effect—which lasts several hours in the afternoon—is of a giant snake descending the pyramid. Not so far away, the Pyramid of the Sun in southern Mexico faces due east—straight at the rising sun, on either the spring or fall equinox. Remember that on only those two days does the sun rise from due east. The spring equinox causes a great stir among New Age sun worshipers, who flock to the Pyramid of the Sun on March 20, believing that “energy” can be tapped from the air on this day at this particular site. In their New Age fervor, these gatherers seem to be having impacts on the site as they trample upon it every March. Helpful tip: Since the autumn equinox is celestially little different than the spring one, it should generate equal energies. So dodge the crowds and make your pilgrimage to this great historical site this weekend. Let us know if you feel the buzz.

On either equinox, the sun casts an undulating snake-like shadow down the staircase on the Kukulcán pyramid’s north face. The shadow appears to connect with the serpent heads set at the base of the monument, indicating this was a very intentional effect of Mayan architects. Photo courtesy of Flickr user ErikBFlom.

In New Mexico? Then Chaco Canyon‘s Sun Dagger site is the ancient observatory for you. Here, ancient Anasazi sky-watchers evidently leaned three slabs of stone against a south-facing rock wall, on which they carved two spirals. Blades of sunlight, passing through the cracks between the slabs, migrate across these etched spirals, and so two corresponding blades of sunlight appear on the rock wall and its spiral etchings. On the summer solstice, a single dagger of light perfectly bisects the larger of the spirals. On the winter solstice, two separate daggers touch the opposing outer edges of the larger spiral. And on the equinoxes, something slightly more complex happens—easily observed in the diagram on this website. An artist named Anna Sofaer reportedly discovered this site in 1977, and by returning throughout the year, observed the passage of the sunlight shafts across the carved spirals. And at the Anasazi ruin at Hovenweep National Monument, set on the border of Utah and Colorado, shafts of sunlight cross spiral rock etchings on the summer solstice. And at a Chumash site in Burro Flats, in southern California, a sliver of light crosses the center point of five concentric rings on the winter solstice. On the same day at a Baja California shrine called La Rumorosa, a blade of sunlight cast through a rock seems to beam from the eyes of a human figure painted on a shaded stone wall.

In Yorkshire at the moment? Then slog across the green-gray moors and take a moment near sunset to visit the biggest boulder in the county, the Hitching Stone—a glacial rock anywhere from 21 to 29 feet thick in any direction and guessed to weigh about 1,000 tons. From this once-sacred location, observers on the equinox will notice that the sun sets directly behind Pendle Hill, directly west of the Hitching Stone. And reportedly on the winter solstice, a person seated on the nearby Winter Hill Stone in the frigid hour before dawn will see the sun come up directly behind the Hitching Stone. Important to note of this landscape is that it occurred naturally and was not created by ancient astronomers (unless the ancients managed to hoist the Hitching Stone and tote it to its current spot). Experts have noted that this Yorkshire location is only lacking a point that would mark the date of the summer solstice. And remember that the dreary weather precludes even seeing the sun most days of the year here, so don’t plan a vacation around this trick of solar astronomy.

In Egypt? Then visit the pyramids, where several great monuments are aligned to honor the sun and stars on either equinox. The sphinx, for one, faces due east, taking in the rising sun on March 20 and September 22. And within the Great Pyramid, a skyward shaft is believed to have pointed directly at the Alpha Draconis star at midnight on the autumn equinox. In and around the year 3000 B.C., Alpha Draconis served as the North Star of the era. Because the stars are slowly migrating in their relation to the Earth, this phenomenon is no longer observed. (Today’s North Star is Polaris.)

Staying home this equinox? Then try this: Tilt a broomstick southward (assuming you’re in the Northern Hemisphere; tilt it northward if you’re south of the Equator) and, using a protractor for assistance, hold it at the exact angle of your location’s latitude. Refer to this chart of the latitude and longitude of major world cities, or this separate chart for the United States and Canada, to determine your latitude. Keep holding that broomstick. Steady now. Don’t move. Just two more hours. Hang in there. OK—get ready, here it comes: At noon, the broomstick will cast no shadow. Amazing!

Or staying up late this weekend? Then this may be the best time of the year to watch the skies for the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights. Mystics like to refer to this phenomenon as “mysterious,” though it makes perfect sense to pragmatic scientific minds. The aurora borealis—which has an austral counterpart over the high southerly latitudes—is caused when a sun flare sends clouds of electrified subatomic particles toward the Earth at millions of miles per hour. Upon crashing into the molecules of the Earth’s atmosphere, energy is transferred between the particles, creating brilliant displays of colorful light. Sun flares occur most often around the equinox. Click here for information of the latest in sun flare activity.

This post was written equally for all people. For on September 22, readers in every hemisphere will share equally in the light of the sun; at every point on Earth, the sun will rise from due east, and 12 hours later set at due west; and at all points on the Earth, the sun will spend 12 hours in the sky. The equinox is a day of global sharing.

The Egyptian sphinx looks straight into the rising sun on both equinoxes. Photo courtesy of Flickr user watchsmart.

Celebrate Earth Day With a Rainbow of Spectacular Photos

Smithsonian Magazine

Mother Nature is the ultimate artist—Earth's most stunning sights range across an entire palette of color. And what better way to celebrate Earth Day than with a tribute to entire rainbow available right here on Earth? Here's a virtual trip through a selection of the spectacular views our planet has to offer...a destination for every color of the rainbow.

Lower Antelope Canyon (Page, Arizona)

Lower Antelope Canyon (Page, Arizona) (Kerrick James/Corbis)

Located on Navajo land near Page, Arizona, Antelope Canyon—which is actually two canyons, upper and lower—is home to some of the most spectacular shades of red on planet Earth. The otherworldly views there are thanks to sandstone that eroded due to flash floods and rains over millions of years. Geological formations like Antelope Canyon are known as slot canyons, which are narrow, deep and difficult to climb. It offers a world of sweeping, sinuous rock that looks different with every passing hour. Lower Antelope Canyon is known as Hasdeztwazi, or "spiral rock arches," by the Navajo people.

Rub Al Khali Desert, Liwa Oasis (Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates)

Rub Al Khali Desert, Liwa Oasis (Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates) (GARCIA Julien/Hemis/Corbis)

The world's largest sand desert is known as the "empty quarter." And orange sights abound in the Rub Al Khali desert, home to a sea of sand that extends over 255,000 square miles. The sand desert is so vast that many of its secrets still remain unexplored, and Westerners didn't even try to trek across its expanse until the 1930s. When they did, they found hot, seemingly endless dunes and surreal views. The area isn't all arid, though: It contains a series of oases like Liwa, where this gorgeous dunescape was captured.

Izu Peninsula (Izu, Japan)

Swampland, Izu Peninsula (amanaimages/Corbis)

This photo's yellow hues come thanks to dawn over Japan's Izu Peninsula, the mountaneous, coastal area rich with geologic history and wildlife. Over time, the Izu Peninsula slowly morphed from a series of submarine volcanoes into a volcanic island. Geologists call it a "living peninsula"—the only place where they can see two island arcs collding—and geologic activity still occurs there to this day. Migratory birds stop over on the peninsula on their way to and from the nearby Izu Islands, which are home to 27 species of breeding land birds.

Northern Lights Over Jökulsárlón (Jökulsárlón, Iceland)

Northern lights over Jökulsárlón, Iceland. (Frank Krahmer/Corbis)

Thank the Aurora Borealis for the green lights you can spot in this photo. The phenomenon is one of Earth's most beautiful natural sights—a strange dance of color that occurs when electrons hit the highest reaches of Earth's atmosphere. They get energized and go down "auroral field lines," colliding with oxygen and nitrogen atoms, releasing light and putting on an incredible show. This aurora was spotted above Jökulsárlón, a glacial lagoon in southeast Iceland that's fed by the melting of Europe's largest glacier. The chilly Icelandic lake is a great place to commune with nature and soak in the spectacular sight.

Great Barrier Reef (North-east coast of Australia)

Great Barrier Reef, northeast Australia. (Michael Coyne/Design Pics/Corbis)

Blue equals water, and water equals life. There aren't many places on Earth that illustrate that fact better than the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest collection of coral reefs. Home to thousands of species of fish, mollusc and coral, it's an ecosystem so brilliant—and so cherished—that it was the first reef to be declared an Unesco World Heritage site. But the beautiful reef is in trouble: It's in the midst of a massive bleaching event that experts estimate has affected 93 percent of the precious reef.

Ribeira de Janela (Madeira, Portugal)

Ribeira de Janela, Madeira, Portugal (Stefan Huwiler/imageBROKER/Corbis)

Is your mood indigo? Then it matches this seascape from Madeira, Portugal, perfectly. The volcanic rock formation in the picture is called Ilheus da Rib. You can't see it here, but the beach is surrounded by a forest filled with diverse life. The sparsely populated area has soaring mountains and stunning waterfalls.

Badwater Basin (Death Valley, California)

Badwater Basin, Death Valley, California. (Frank Krahmer/Masterfile/Corbis)

Your Earth Day rainbow tour ends, appropriately, at sunset—and what a sunset this is. The purple landscape you see here is a huge salt flat at Badwater Basin, a gigantic and barren place that covers nearly 200 square miles. The salt pan, as it's called, got its name from a saline lake that's been sucked dry over thousands of years, but still manages to sustain some life. Nearby, in the flats, is the lowest point in the United States of America—but a high point for anyone who's intrigued by the crystalline landscape at the bottom of the hottest place on Earth.

Why Some People "Hear" Silent GIFs

Smithsonian Magazine

Short looping images called animated GIFs seem to be everywhere on the internet, flickering as ads or serving as social media reactions. Though all GIFs are silent, that doesn't stop some people from hearing them. As Niall Firth reports for New Scientist, the largest study to date of the phenomenon—called visually evoked auditory response or vEAR—shows that more than 20 percent of the 4000 people​ surveyed find GIFs quite noisy.

The illusion strikes some people when they see certain moving images, Firth explains. In the non-digital world, there is enough noise accompanying visual stimuli that it can be difficult to figure out when a sound that shouldn't be there is heard. But when GIFs make noise in the slightly more controlled realm of computer-mediated interactions, people started noticing.

That happened early in December 2017, when Lisa DeBruine, a psychologist at the University of Glasgow posted a GIF on Twitter of two electrical pylons playing jump rope with a third. As the central pylon leaps over the swinging power lines of the two outer pylons, the landscape judders — just as one would expect if a large, metal tower was capable of jumping and landing nearby.

(HappyToast)

The GIF (first created by animation and video creator Happy Toast) makes no noise. But DeBruine asked via Twitter: "Does anyone in visual perception know why you can hear this gif?" She also ran a Twitter poll where 67 percent of the more than 315,000 respondents said they experience a thudding sound when watching the GIF. In replies, other uses claimed to hear boinging sounds. Still others report that while they don't hear anything, they do feel a shaking.

Amidst the replies, Chris Fassnidge chimed in with: "That is basically the subject of my PhD."

Fassnidge and his colleague Elliot Freeman, both cognitive neuroscience researchers at the City University of London, have been researching vEAR because it is a form of synaesthesia, where simulation of one sense leads to responses in another sensory pathway. Colors evoke flavors, visuals trigger sounds.

Freeman tells New Scientist that he first noticed that he could hear visuals as a student, when a distant lighthouse's flashes seemed to buzz. None of his friends could hear the light, but the phenomenon was a bit of a quirky one to explain. On his website, he writes:

I ‘hear’ car indicator lights, flashing shop displays, animated adverts on web-browsers, lip-movements, and the footsteps of people as they walk. It is a clear auditory sensation, mostly in my mind’s ear, though sometimes I can confuse it with real sounds if the latter are very quiet. The sounds are like white noise (‘sshhh’), but often they have different harmonics, especially when there are sequences of flashes.

With the jumping pylon, vEAR went viral. "It raised everyone's awareness above a threshold where it was taken more seriously," Freeman tells New Scientist.

For their research, the two scientists asked people to take an online survey that includes 24 silent videos that respondents rate on a vEAR noise scale. Of the 4,000 people who took that survey (and you can as well), 22 percent rated more than half of the videos as ones that give them a clear sensation of sound. They reported the results this week in the journal Cortex.

The videos that people reported cave them the most sounds were of events that create predictable sounds, such as a hammer hitting a nail or metal balls colliding. But for some people, random patterns and abstract lights were enough to create the auditory illusion.

The phenomena may arise from different brain connectivity patterns, Freeman tells New Scientist. The auditory regions of one person's brain may be unusually well-connected to the visual regions.

That explanation seems to matches the experience of Lidell Simpson, who is technically deaf, but as he explained over email to Heather Murphy for The New York Times: "Everything I see, taste, touch and smell gets translated into sound." He added: "I can never shut it off."

Fassnidge tells Murphy of The Times that it's possible the parts of Simpson's brain that would typically process auditory information learned to process visual information instead. Simpson was fitted for a hearing aid as a toddler.

Freeman and Fassnidge's ongoing research involves electrically stimulating people's brains to see if they can provoke vEAR responses. “Using electrical brain stimulation, we have also found tentative signs that visual and auditory brain areas cooperate more in people with vEAR, while they tend to compete with each other, in non-vEAR people," Freeman said in an email to Murphy. The new experiments should help the scientists ask more pointed questions about the auditory illusions and the brain wiring that makes it possible.

For now, however, the biological basis of this synesthesia remains unknown. The study least lets people know they are not alone in hearing what is actually silent. For more comradery, those that "vEAR" can browse the Reddit forum dedicated to Noisy GIFs. Even the loudest images there won't damage your eardrum.

Explore 10 of Taiwan’s Best Ecotourism Sites

Smithsonian Magazine

Portuguese sailors en route to Japan in the late 16th century deemed Taiwan “Ilha Formosa,” or beautiful island, for good reason. From misty mountains rising over 10,000 feet high, to tropical forests teeming with birds to winding coastlines and offshore islands, its terrain offers visitors some of Asia's most stunning landscapes. Dive with sea turtles, gaze upon otherworldly rock formations and hike through lush alpine forests at these ten incredible destinations.

Kenting National Park

Image by Kenting National Park's Alangyi Ancient Trial rewards hikers with stunning coastal views. (original image)

Image by Paddleboarding is a fantastic way to discover Kenting's coastline. (original image)

Image by A sailor enjoys a light wind in Dapeng Bay. (original image)

Image by Scuba divers explore Kenting's coral reefs. (original image)

Image by Sea turtles are one of the many species scuba divers can observe in Kenting's waters. (original image)

Image by More than 1,000 plant types grace Kenting National Forest Area. (original image)

Image by Kenting National Park also offers a glimpse into rural Taiwanese life. (original image)

At the southernmost tip of Taiwan lies Kenting National Park. Home to forests, mountains, pastures, lakes, sand dunes, beaches and coral reefs, it encapsulates Taiwan's natural beauty. Rent a scooter and drive along the park’s paved coastal route past rolling hills and farmland, enjoy fresh seafood beneath swaying palm trees, or take out a small craft to discover its rich marine world. Don’t miss Kenting National Forest Area, consisting of more than 1,000 types of plants including medicinal herbs, tropical fruits and rubber trees. Walkways link 17 scenic points in the forest area, including the Looking-Glass Tree, estimated to be over 400 years old with unusual buttress-shaped roots that grow above the ground; the magnificent stalactites and stalagmites of Fairy Cave; and the Valley of Hanging Banyans, a wonderland of overgrown aerial roots. 

Little Liuqiu 

Image by The Flower Vase Rock is one of Little Liuqiu's most iconic sights. (original image)

Image by At low tide, beachgoers can walk right up to the natural landmark. (original image)

Image by Regular ferries depart from the mainland for Little Liuqiu. (original image)

Image by Beachgoers comb Little Liuqiu's shores for treasures. (original image)

Image by Just 2.6 square miles, the island resembles a drifting ball from above. (original image)

Image by Don’t miss the chance to snorkel with the island’s green sea turtles. (original image)

Image by No traffic lights exist on the island, preserving its laid-back, rural atmosphere. (original image)

Image by Caves and temples dot Little Liuqiu's coastline. (original image)

Little Liuqiu, located off of Taiwan's southern coast, is the country’s only coral reef island. Just 2.6 square miles, the island is said to look like a drifting ball from above. Its crystal clear waters, unique geological formations and beautiful coastal views dotted with caves and temples draw visitors year-round. No traffic lights exist on the island, and much of the ecosystem remains untouched thanks to this laid-back, rural atmosphere. Pay a visit to the limestone Flower Vase Rock and don’t miss the chance to snorkel with the island’s green sea turtles. Regular ferries from Donggang Wharf on the mainland make Little Liuqiu an easy day trip. 

Penghu and Matsu Island 

Image by Penghu's most famous sight is an ancient fishing trap resembling twin hearts. (original image)

Image by More than 500 ancient fishing traps, known as stone weirs, speckle Penghu's shores. (original image)

Image by The Penghu Stone Weir Festival celebrates this heritage, featuring performances by local celebrities and a stone weir fishing experience. (original image)

Image by Another Penghu must-see is Tongpan Geology Park, often referred to as the “Yellowstone Park of Penghu.” (original image)

Image by Columnar joints, platy joints and a “lotus platform” featuring concentric circles formed by basalt lava give the island its distinctive look. (original image)

Image by Fields of flowers grace Penghu in the warmer months. (original image)

Image by In late spring, a bioluminescent phenomenon known as the "Blue Tears" occurs in the waters surrounding Matsu Island. (original image)

Image by Strong southern winds disturb microscopic creatures in Matsu's water, causing them to a emit blue fluorescent light. (original image)

Image by From April through September, Matsu is home to the Chinese Crested Tern, the rarest of the world’s 40 or so tern species. (original image)

Image by In July and August, ecological tern-watching boat trips take visitors to protected tern habitats. (original image)

Image by Tern-watching boat trips are also a great way to admire Matsu's impressive landforms. (original image)

An archipelago of 90 islands off the western coast of Taiwan, Penghu is known for its crystal clear water, sparkling beaches and the more than 500 ancient fishing traps, called stone weirs, that speckle its shores. During the summer months, the Penghu Stone Weir Festival celebrates this heritage, featuring performances by local celebrities and a stone weir fishing experience led by owners of the weirs. Most famous is the Qi Meiyu stone weir in the shape of twin hearts.

Another Penghu must-see is Tongpan Geology Park, often referred to as the “Yellowstone Park of Penghu.” Columnar joints, platy joints and a “lotus platform” featuring concentric circles formed by basalt lava give the island its distinctive look.

Further north on the Taiwan Strait outside of Penghu County, Matsu Island is home to a bioluminescent phenomenon. In April and May, strong southern winds disturb microscopic creatures in the water, causing them to a emit blue fluorescent light. Sometimes beachgoers will look back to find their footprints glowing from creatures that have washed ashore.

Matsu Island is also a birder’s paradise. From April through September, thousands of terns venture northward to Matsu to mate. Among them is the Chinese Crested Tern identified by its orange-yellowish beak with a black tip, black head, white chest and grey wings. The rarest of the world’s 40 or so tern species, it has only been spotted a few times since its discovery in 1863. Ecological tern-watching boat trips run in July and August and take visitors to protected tern habitats past impressive coastal landforms.

Sun Moon Lake

Image by Central Taiwan's Sun Moon Lake enjoys pleasant weather year-round. (original image)

Image by The alpine lake is renowned for its tranquility. (original image)

Image by A pedestrian-bike path hugs the lake’s perimeter and lead to visitors to monuments such as Chi-En Pagoda. (original image)

Image by Cruises depart daily from its shores. (original image)

Image by Visitors can rent a rowboat or canoe for more leisurely exploration and a chance to see the area's varied birdlife. (original image)

Taiwan’s largest alpine lake, Sun Moon Lake is renowned for its tranquility and cultural heritage. The weather is pleasant year-round, and temples and pagodas dot the surrounding countryside of central Taiwan. Head to Chi-En Pagoda, or “Pagoda of Filial Virtue,” for outstanding views. Chiang Kai-shek, for whom Sun Moon Lake was a cherished vacation sport, erected the monument in honor of his mother. In the spring season, the trail leading up to the pagoda ignites with fireflies. Hugging the lake’s perimeter is a pedestrian-bike path, and cruises depart daily from it shores. Rent a rowboat or canoe for more leisurely exploration and the chance to see all manner of birds.

Yeliu Geopark

Image by Spanning one mile along Taiwan’s northern coast, Yeliu Geopark looks like something out of a Dali painting. (original image)

Image by Its sandstone seashore, where Datun Mountain meets the sea, is dotted with unusually shaped rocks and pinnacles. (original image)

Image by Rocks have earned names based on their appearance, such as "Dragon's Head" and "Fairy's Shoe." (original image)

Image by Yeliu's unique landscape is the result of erosion, weathering and earth movements. (original image)

Image by Adjacent to the geopark is the country’s first marine park. (original image)

This one-mile-long cape on Taiwan’s northern coast where Datun Mountain meets the sea looks like something out of a Dali painting. Shaped by erosion, weathering and earth movements, Yeliu's sandstone seashore is dotted with unusually shaped rocks and pinnacles. Highlights include the aptly named Queen’s Head, Fairy’s Shoe, Candle, Bean Curd and Dragon’s Head rocks as well as wave-eroded caves. Adjacent to the geopark is the country’s first marine park. Be sure to walk through its 300-foot glass underwater tunnel showcasing over 200 rare species.

Northeast and Yilan Coast National Scenic Area

Image by Marking the northern gateway to the Northeast Coast National Scenic Area, Nanya is a must-see for its mesmerizing, conical rock formations. (original image)

Image by Over time, weather and waves have sculpted the sandstone shore, and the oxidation of iron ore within the stones has painted them with colorful bands. (original image)

Image by Bitou-Longdong Geopark showcases dramatic sea-eroded landforms, including sea cliffs, undercut bluffs and rocky platforms dotted with formations resembling mushrooms, honeycombs and tofu bricks. (original image)

Image by With crystal clear water and abundant tropical fish, Longdong is an outstanding spot for snorkeling, scuba diving, rock fishing and bird spotting. (original image)

Image by Its sheer sandstone cliffs also attract rock climbers from all over the world. (original image)

Image by Some 100 feet tall, with routes of varying levels of difficulty, the cliffs are perfect for those wishing to hone their skills. (original image)

Image by Starting just inland from Fulong, the Caoling Historic Trail is one of Taiwan's most famous hiking paths. (original image)

Image by The only remaining section of the old Qing dynasty trail, it was constructed 130 years ago to provide a land link from Taipei to Yilan across the Sandiaojiao Cape. (original image)

Stretching more than 60 miles from Nanya District in New Taipei City to Neibi Beach in Suao Township, the Northeast and Yilan Coast National Scenic Area is a crown jewel sitting atop Taiwan's natural bounty. Featuring numerous capes and bays, spectacular rock formations, golden beaches and rivers, the northeast coast takes visitors through some of Taiwan's most varied and beautiful coastal scenery.

Marking the northern gateway to the Northeast Coast National Scenic Area, Nanya is a must-see for its mesmerizing, conical rock formations. Over time, weather and waves have sculpted the sandstone shore, and the oxidation of iron ore within the stones has painted them with colorful bands. Many fascinating formations, including one famously shaped like an ice cream cone, are visible from the Coastal Highway.

South along the Coastal Highway from Nanya, Bitou-Longdong Geopark showcases dramatic sea-eroded landforms, including sea cliffs, undercut bluffs and rocky platforms dotted with formations resembling mushrooms, honeycombs and tofu bricks. With crystal clear water and abundant tropical fish, Longdong is an outstanding spot for snorkeling, scuba diving, rock fishing and bird spotting. Its sheer sandstone cliffs also attract rock climbers from all over the world. Some 100 feet tall, with routes of varying levels of difficulty, the cliffs are perfect for those wishing to hone their skills. 

Starting just inland from Fulong, the Caoling Historic Trail is one of Taiwan's most famous hiking paths. The only remaining section of the old Qing dynasty trail, it was constructed 130 years ago to provide a land link from Taipei to Yilan across the Sandiaojiao Cape. The present trail spans roughly six miles and offers sweeping views of the northeast coastline. From certain vantage points, you may see the spouts of whales and dolphins in the distance.

Sun Link Sea Forest Recreation Area

Image by Pathways wind through rhododendron​ forests past magnificent caves and waterfalls in Sun Link Sea Forest Recreation Area. (original image)

Image by Light illuminates Water Curtain Cave. (original image)

Image by Sun Link's primeval forest feels worlds away. (original image)

Image by Campgrounds and wooden cottages allow visitors around-the-clock access to the mythical scenery. (original image)

Image by Maple leaves turn a fiery red in autumn. (original image)

The Sun Link Sea Forest Recreation Area is home to a tropical monsoonal climate and primeval mountain forest set against the backdrop of Mt. Hehuan. Here, pathways wind through rhododendron​ forests and past magnificent caves and waterfalls. Feel the spray from the thunderous 400-foot Qingyun waterfall, or soak up the beauty of the Niaosong and Water Curtain Cave waterfalls in the lush Songlong Rock area. Don’t miss Swallow’s Cottage, a tranquil rock cave where swallows nest behind a curtain of dripping water, or the fields of endemic poppies that bloom in April. Campgrounds and wooden cottages allow visitors around-the-clock access to this mythical scenery. 

Tianliao Moon World 

Image by Colored lights illuminate Tianliao Moon World. (original image)

Image by Located in the valley of a small tributary of the Erren River, Tianliao Moon World's landscape is hauntingly desolate. (original image)

Image by The badlands owe their unique appearance to erosion from rain and streams. (original image)

Image by Jagged ridges, pinnacles and bubbling mud volcanoes are among the area's top attractions. (original image)

Image by Railed pathways allow visitors easy access to the scenery. (original image)

Image by After taking in the landscape, visit one of the several nearby temples, including Rihyue Temple and Fongyue Temple. (original image)

Stepping into Tianliao Moon World is akin to stepping foot on another planet. Located in the valley of a small tributary of the Erren River, its landscape is hauntingly desolate, shaped over time by erosion from rain and streams. Railed pathways snake through its Moon-like badlands past jagged ridges and pinnacles and mud volcanoes bubble like witches' brews. Camping areas allow visitors 24-7 access to the scenery, and the eye-catching, Chinese-style Moon Take Multistory Building offers panoramic views of the valley. After taking in the landscape, visit one of the several nearby temples, including Rihyue Temple and Fongyue Temple.

Qigu Lagoon and the Spoonbill Exhibition Hall

Image by The endangered black-faced spoonbill migrates to Taiwan from China and Korea for several months each year. (original image)

Image by In the winter, birdwatchers flock to Qigu Lagoon to see the endangered birds. (original image)

Image by The lagoon is also home to over 30 types of crab, 200 species of fish, shrimp and shellfish, and a wide range of bird species. (original image)

Image by The 24-hour Spoonbill Exhibition Hall offers information about the habits and habitat of these majestic birds. (original image)

Image by When the spoonbills arrive to the lagoon's protected areas, the center sets up a video display and high-powered binoculars on its outdoor deck for better viewing. (original image)

Image by Black-faced spoonbills congregate in shallow waters. (original image)

Formed by the changing routes of the Zengwen River, western Taiwan’s Qigu Lagoon is home to over 30 types of crab, 200 species of fish, shrimp and shellfish and a wide range of bird species. In the winter, birdwatchers flock to the area to see the endangered black-faced spoonbill, which migrates to Taiwan from China and Korea for several months each year. Extending out onto the lagoon, the 24-hour Spoonbill Exhibition Hall offers information about the habits and habitat of these majestic birds. When the spoonbills arrive to the lagoon's protected areas, the center sets up a video display and high-powered binoculars on its outdoor deck for better viewing.

Siraya National Scenic Area 

Image by Baihe earned the name “Lotus Country” for its unending expanses of lotus fields that bloom from June through September. (original image)

Image by Siraya National Scenic Area in east Taiwan offers visitors spectacular scenery and wildlife viewing close to Tainan City. (original image)

Image by Shin Hua Arboretum is a favorite destination for its firefly viewing. Easily accessible trails invite pedestrians into dark forests illuminated by flashes of yellow in the early evenings. (original image)

Image by Adjacent to the hot spring is Yongye Park, Taiwan’s only deciduous plant-themed park, known for its fiery red maple leaves in autumn. In the summertime, the park is a fantastic location to observe milkweed butterflies. (original image)

Image by Baihe's lotus flowers are best seen in the morning, when sunlight encourages them to open. (original image)

Image by Guanziling Hot Spring, located at the peak of Zhentou Mountain, was developed by Japanese soldiers in the early 20th century and is one of the most famous in Taiwan. (original image)

Image by Mud from coral reef rock layers lend the water its dark grey color and is believed to have therapeutic qualities. (original image)

Image by Hutoupi Reservoir, Taiwan’s oldest, draws visitors with its high-altitude views. Surrounded by mountains that form the face of a tiger, the basin is lined by pathways, dense camphor trees and Taiwan acacia. (original image)

Image by Visitors can walk out to the Tiger Moon Pavilion in the middle of the reservoir via the Tiger Moon Suspension Bridge, take out a boat or admire the mesmerizing blue-green waters from a platform at the Lakeview gazebo entrance. (original image)

Siraya National Scenic Area in eastern Taiwan offers visitors spectacular scenery and wildlife viewing close to Tainan City. Shin Hua Arboretum is a favorite destination for its firefly viewing. Easily accessible trails invite pedestrians into dark forests illuminated by flashes of yellow in the early evenings.

The nearby Guanziling Hot Spring, located at the peak of Zhentou Mountain, was developed by Japanese soldiers in the early 20th century and is one of the most famous in Taiwan. Mud from coral reef rock layers lend the water its dark grey color and is believed to have therapeutic qualities. Adjacent to the hot spring is Yongye Park, Taiwan’s only deciduous plant-themed park, known for its fiery red maple leaves in autumn. In the summertime, the park is a fantastic location to observe milkweed butterflies.

One of the seven major ancient districts of Tainan City, Baihe earned the name “Lotus Country” for its unending expanses of lotus fields that bloom from June through September. The flowers are best seen in the morning, when sunlight encourages them to open. At the Lotus Culture Information Hall, visitors can learn about shelling lotus seeds, grinding lotus-root powder and making lotus tea, and the annual Lotus Festival offers a myriad of activities such as lotus picking and lotus-based meals.

Hutoupi Reservoir, Taiwan’s oldest, draws visitors with its high-altitude views. Surrounded by mountains that form the face of a tiger, the basin is lined by pathways, dense camphor trees and Taiwan acacia. Visitors can walk out to the Tiger Moon Pavilion in the middle of the reservoir via the Tiger Moon Suspension Bridge, take out a boat or admire the mesmerizing blue-green waters from a platform at the Lakeview gazebo entrance. 

Learn more about Ecotourism in Taiwan.

Watch this video in the original article

Just a Few Self-Driving Cars Could Fix Phantom Traffic Jams

Smithsonian Magazine

Chances are that if you’re driving any distance over the Memorial Day weekend, you will be confronted with one of the great mysteries of modern travel. It’s the phantom traffic jam, when the flow of cars on the highway alternately speeds up and then slows to a stop, and you find yourself cursing your fate and the brake lights in front of you.

But now there may be answer for how to rid the highways of this phenomenon: Mix in cars without human drivers.

That’s what a team of scientists is suggesting after two days of testing in Arizona. Based on computer simulations, they believed that adding just one autonomous vehicle to a pack of cars might be just the thing to reduce the notorious stop-and-go traffic waves. Having one driverless car that was able to maintain a consistent speed could be enough to help induce human drivers to follow suit. Or so their data indicated.

“We had a good idea from our simulations that a single car would be sufficient,” said Daniel Work, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. “But the proof is actually doing it with real human drivers, because quite frankly, that’s the hardest thing to model.”

So, the team, which also included lead researchers from Temple, Rutgers and the University of Arizona, recruited human drivers to follow each other around a circular track.  Roughly 20 cars were involved—it varied from 19 to 22 throughout the testing—and that included one that a person steered, but otherwise operated autonomously.

While the humans knew that a self-driving model would be in their pack, they didn’t know why, according to Work. They were simply given these instructions: “Drive as if you were in rush hour traffic. Follow the vehicle ahead without falling behind. Do not pass the car ahead. Do not hit the car ahead. Drive safely at all times. Do not tailgate. But put an emphasis on catching up to the vehicle ahead if a gap starts opening up.”

To make that easier, vehicle speed was kept low, about 15 miles per hour. Still, the tendency of the humans was to speed up and slow down. By contrast, the driverless car, equipped with a laser scanner that enabled it to track both the speed of the car in front of it and the distance to its back bumper, was unfailingly consistent. And, ultimately, as the human drivers adjusted to that even pace, the stop and go flow diminished and, in some tests, was actually eliminated.   

“The driverless car not only can choose a speed to dampen the wave, it has the discipline to actually stick to it,” Work said.  

Here’s a video of one of the tests. At the beginning and end of the video, the car's acceleration is controlled by a human driver, and traffic starts to bunch up, but when the computer takes over, traffic smooths out:

There was another benefit, one that Work admits pleasantly surprised him.  By adjusting to a more constant pace, the pack’s fuel consumption dropped by as much as 40 percent.  “When I first saw the numbers, I thought this can’t be,” he said. “It’s almost too good to be true.”

As positive as the results were for the study, which received funding from the National Science Foundation, Work knows there’s a big difference between what happens in controlled conditions on a track and what happens on the highway.

For starters, the cars in the tests were restricted to one lane, meaning there was none of the lane-hopping or merging that can tangle traffic flow. Adding those variables to traffic tests would significantly ratchet up their complexity and cost. But based on what the researchers learned, Work feels more confident in concluding that even if only five percent of vehicles on the highway were autonomous, it would still improve both traffic flow and fuel consumption.

“What motivated this study was how much advancement there’s been in the self-driving landscape, and the questions about what are we going to be able to do in the near future with this technology,” he said. “There’s been a lot of research about what happens when the entire fleet of vehicles is automated, but depending on who you listen to, that may take from a few years to a few decades.

“That’s great, but we wanted to see if there are benefits in the immediate future when you just have a few of those cars on the roadways. And what we found was that just one self-driving car made all the human drivers more efficient, too.” 

Why Does This Indonesian Volcano Burn Bright Blue?

Smithsonian Magazine

Over the past month, the web has come alive with French photographer Olivier Grunewald's spectacular photos of Indonesia's Kawah Ijen volcano. Snapped during shooting of a new documentary he's releasing with the president of Geneva's Society for Volcanology, Régis Etienne, the photos—taken without the aid of any filter or digital enhancement—showcase the volcano's amazing electric blue glow.

Little of the web coverage, though, has enlightened readers on the scientific principles at work. "This blue glow, unusual for a volcano, isn't the lava itself, as unfortunately can be read on many websites," Grunewald says. "It is due to the combustion of sulfuric gases in contact with air at temperatures above 360°C."

In other words, the lava—molten rock that emerges from the Earth at ultra-high temperatures—isn't colored significantly differently than the lava at other volcanoes, which all differ slightly based on their mineral composition but appear a bright red or orange color in their molten state. But at Kawah Ijen, extremely high quantities of sulfuric gases emerge at high pressures and temperatures (sometimes in excess of 600°C) along with the lava. 

Exposed to the oxygen present in air and sparked by lava, the sulfur burns readily, and its flames are bright blue. There's so much sulfur, Grunewald says, that at times it flows down the rock face as it burns, making it seem as though blue lava is spilling down the mountainside. But because only the flames are blue, rather than the lava itself, the effect is only visible at night—during daytime, the volcano looks like roughly any other.

"The vision of these flames at night is strange and extraordinary," Grunewald says. "After several nights in the crater, we felt really living on another planet."

Grunewald first heard about the phenomenon from Etienne, who visited the volcano in 2008 with an Indonesian guide. After being shown Etienne's photo featuring a child miner's silhouette surrounded by the blue glow, he was struck by the idea of photographing the mountain's sulfur miners working at night.

These miners extract sulfuric rock—formed after the blue flames have gone out and the sulfur gas has cooled and combined with the lava to form solidified rock—for use in the food and chemical industries. "To double their meager income, the hardiest of these men work nights, by the electric blue light of the sulfuric acid exhaled by the volcano," Grunewald says. Some of the workers are children, seeking to support their families by any means possible.

They carry rock-filled baskets by hand down the mountain, selling it for about 680 Indonesian rupiahs per kilogram, the equivalent of about six cents. In a country where the median daily income is about $13, many work overnight to supplement their income. Grunewald estimates that these nighttime miners can mine and carry between 80 to 100 kilos over the course of twelve hours of work—about $5 to $6.

Grunewald and Etienne produced the documentary partly to bring attention to these harsh working conditions. Most of the miners do not have gas masks (which the photographers wore throughout shooting and distributed to miners afterward), and suffer from health problems due to prolonged exposure to sulfur dioxide and other toxic gases.

Shooting these striking photos—some taken just a few feet away from the flames—was far more physically demanding than most of Grunewald's previous projects of landscapes and wildlife. "The main problem was the acidic gases that whirled constantly in the crater," he says. "The night seriously increased the difficulty as well, because it became almost impossible to see when dense gases arrived—at times, we were stuck in gas plumes for over an hour without being able to see our hands."

Just 30 nights in the crater, distributed over six trips, were enough to show Grunewald how destructive the environment of these mines can be. "During my first trip, I lost a camera and two lenses that had been corroded by acid," he says. "After we got back home, it took up to three weeks for our skin to lose the smell of sulfur."

His photos make the blue flames appear dramatically beautiful, even surreal. But for the miners that spend months or years at the volcano, the sulfur dioxide is quite real, and the health effects of chronic exposure—throat and lung irritation, difficulty breathing and a propensity for lung disease—can be devastating.

Ten Celestial Events You Don't Want to Miss in 2020

Smithsonian Magazine

Every year, meteor showers dazzle viewers, eclipses reveal the orbital balance of our planet with the sun and moon, and the other worlds of the solar system move across the sky against the backdrop of distant stars. Armed with a pair of binoculars, a simple telescope, or even just the naked eye, astronomy enthusiasts can witness some of the most spectacular phenomena in the night sky if they know when and where to look. Even as light pollution continues to threaten the future of observational astronomy, national parks and other conservation institutions are creating dark sky parks to preserve the precious resource of a clear night sky. These ten astronomical events in 2020 could provide the perfect opportunity to travel to a dark sky reserve, such as central Idaho or the Mackenzie Basin of New Zealand, to take in the natural splendor of the Milky Way.

February 18 — The Moon Passes in Front of Mars

Mars passes 0.3 degrees from the waning gibbous moon on July 17, 2003. (JeffGamble via Flickr under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

In late February, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn will line up in the night sky, providing an opportunity to view all three with a pair of binoculars or a telescope, or to simply enjoy the three planets with the naked eye. Between February 18 and 20, the moon will pass close to each of these planets, making it easier, no matter where you are, to find them in the night sky and perhaps snag some photos of the planets next to the moon.

Depending on where you are in the world, you might even be able to see the moon occult, or pass in front of, Mars and Jupiter. In the western United States during the early morning hours of February 18, sky watchers will be able to see the moon pass over Mars, according to EarthSky. If you happen to be in Antarctica or the southern tip of South America, you can catch the moon occulting Jupiter on February 19. And on February 20, the moon will pass close to Saturn.

April 27 — Venus Shines Brightest in the Sky

Venus shines brightly in the night sky over Victoria, Australia, with the Milky Way visible above. (Indigo Skies Photography via Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Venus, the brightest natural object in the sky after the sun and moon, will shine in full force during late April. The “evening star” will rise in the west after sunset during this month, no matter where you are in the world. Significantly brighter than any other planet or star, Venus provides a unique observing experience for amateur sky watchers and professional astronomers alike.

At 9 p.m. Eastern Time on April 27, Venus will hit its greatest illuminated extent, meaning the illuminated part of Venus covers the greatest area of sky, according to EarthSky. During or near this time, Venus will hit its maximum magnitude for 2020, shining brighter than at any other point during the year.

With a telescope, you can see the disk of Venus and the planet’s changing phases, much like the moon. Due to the positions of Earth, Venus and the sun, our sister planet actually appears brightest in Earth’s skies when it is about 25 percent illuminated. But even with the naked eye, Venus will be nearly impossible to miss. Later in the year, on July 10, Venus will again shine at near its brightest, but this time in the morning sky just before sunrise.

June 21 — Annular Solar Eclipse

An annular eclipse happens when the moon is farthest from Earth. Because the moon is farther away, it appears smaller and does not block the entire view of the sun. (Sefan Seip / NASA)

Due to a remarkable cosmic coincidence, the moon and the sun are the correct sizes and distances away to appear roughly the same size in the sky. Sometimes during a solar eclipse, when the moon moves in front of the sun, the moon is close enough to Earth and big enough in the sky that it covers the disk of the sun entirely, creating a total solar eclipse. Other times, however, when the moon is farther away and smaller in the sky, it does not cover the sun completely, but leaves a ring of light encircling the dark moon, known as an annular solar eclipse.

One of these “ring of fire” eclipses will occur on June 21 of this year, visible in parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Ethiopia, the Arabian peninsula, Pakistan, northern India, southern China and the island of Taiwan. The eclipse will not be visible in the Americas, and a partial solar eclipse will be visible across most of Africa and Asia.

During an annular solar eclipse, direct sunlight passes around the moon and reaches Earth, so eye protection must be worn to prevent eye damage. To see the ring of fire, look up the time and location to see the moon pass directly in front of the sun. Maximum eclipse will occur at about 6:40 UTC, 12:10 p.m. local time, in Uttarakhand, India.

July 14 — Jupiter at Opposition

Jupiter near opposition on March 12, 2016. Seen with a Celestron C8-XLT SCT telescope. (James Curbo via Flickr under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The best time to observe and photograph Jupiter will be around July 14, when the biggest planet in the solar system reaches opposition with the sun. This means that the planet is on the opposite side of Earth as the sun. For distant planets like Jupiter, Earth is a bit closer to the planet during opposition than other times of year, but more importantly, Jupiter will be bright in the sky virtually all night around the time of opposition, reaching its highest point in the sky around midnight local time.

You will be able to see Jupiter with the naked eye, appearing as a white, unblinking star-like object. (Planets do not twinkle like stars, because their light comes from a small disk rather than a single point, so a planet’s light is not as strongly influenced by atmospheric effects.) But with a pair of binoculars or a backyard telescope, you can also spot the four largest moons of Jupiter and perhaps the atmospheric bands of color on the planet.

July 20 — Saturn at Opposition

Saturn near opposition in 2017. (Nigel Howe via Flickr under CC BY-NC 2.0)

Less than a week after Jupiter hits opposition, Saturn will take its turn on the opposite side of Earth from the sun, appearing as a yellow-white dot of light. The planet will be bright in the sky for the entire night, providing plenty of opportunity to observe Saturn in the dark skies, which will be even darker thanks to a new moon occurring on the night of July 20.

You can’t see Saturn’s rings with binoculars, but you don’t need a very large telescope, and opposition this year provides a fantastic opportunity to try to resolve the rings around the gas giant planet. Although the rings were at their maximum tilt toward Earth in 2017, they are still tilted at about 21 degrees this year and should be clearly visible for those who want to see them.

August 12 — Perseid Meteor Shower

A Perseid meteor streaks through the sky above the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope. (ESO / Stéphane Guisard)

The Perseids is one of the most popular meteor showers of the year, peaking in the warm summer nights of August. This year, shooting stars should be visible in the nights and early mornings of August 11, 12 and 13, with the shower’s peak occurring in the predawn hours of August 12. Meteors will be visible across the sky, and if you trace their path, they appear to be radiating from the constellation Perseus.

At its peak, the shower could produce about a meteor every minute, although the last quarter moon will drown out some of the meteors with its light. For best viewing conditions, find a spot outdoors away from any major cities, and remember that it takes about 20 minutes for your eyes to fully adjust to the darkness.

October 13 — Mars at Opposition

Mars near opposition on April 9, 2014. (Davide Simonetti via Flickr under CC BY-NC 2.0)

While Jupiter and Saturn appear brightest in the sky near opposition, Mars, a much closer planet, brightens even more dramatically when it is on the opposite side of Earth from the sun. Mars only reaches opposition with Earth about every two years, and viewing conditions for the Red Planet this October are slated to be spectacular.

For most of the month of October, the light of Mars will grow brighter than even Jupiter, which is generally the second brightest planet in the sky. The brightness of Mars will peak on October 13 when the planet reaches opposition. Earlier in the month, on October 6, Mars will get as close as 38.6 million miles from Earth, its closest approach until 2035, according to EarthSky.

December 13 — Geminid Meteor Shower

The Geminid meteor shower in December 2013. (Asim Patel via Wikicommons under CC BY-SA 3.0)

The best meteor shower of the year may be the Geminids, peaking the night of December 13 and early morning of December 14. Geminid meteors, radiating from the constellation Gemini, are often seen as slow-moving bright streaks of white light. And this year the peak of this winter shower lines up almost perfectly with a new moon, providing dark skies and ideal viewing conditions.

Meteor showers occur when Earth passes through the debris field of another object, usually a comet, that is orbiting the sun. In the case of the Geminids, the meteors are bits of rock from the asteroid 3200 Phaethon, which flies unusually close to the sun for an asteroid, crossing Earths orbital path in the process.

December 14 — Total Solar Eclipse

A total solar eclipse seen on Monday, August 21, 2017, above Madras, Oregon. (NASA / Aubrey Gemignani)

For the second year in a row, a total solar eclipse will cross the southern end of South America. While a partial solar eclipse will be visible across a wide swath of South America, to see totality—when the moon blots out all direct light from the sun, and day temporarily turns to night—you need to be positioned along the path of the moons direct shadow. The path of totality, running across southern Chile and Argentina, will only be about 50 miles wide, but the eclipse promises to pass over some of South America’s most beautiful landscapes.

The maximum duration of totality will be just under 2 minutes and 10 seconds, occurring outside Sierra Colorada in Argentina. During the total eclipse, viewers will be able to see the sun’s corona, or outer atmosphere, with the naked eye, and they may also spot red tendrils of plasma snaking out from the sun known as solar prominences. A total solar eclipse is considered one of the most awesome of natural phenomena, inspiring people to travel across the world chasing totality, so if you can make it to Chile or Argentina, it could be well worth the trip.

December 21 — Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn

A composite image of Jupiter and Saturn showing the approximate relative sizes of the two gas giants. (NASA / Lunar and Planetary Institute)

To close out the year, Jupiter and Saturn will get closer to each other in the night sky than they have been in nearly four centuries, since 1623, according to Space.com. When two objects appear close to each other on the sky, astronomers call the phenomenon a conjunction, and a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn is known as a “great conjunction.” These great conjunction’s occur about every 20 years, but this year the two planets will be getting especially close to each other.

The planets should be separated by only one fifth of the diameter of a full moon, or about 6 arcminutes of angular distance on the sky. With Jupiter and Saturn so close, astronomers will be able to get both planets in the view of high-resolution telescopes (although they will not look like the composite image above). However, the planets will be low to the horizon in the southwest sky after sunset, and will set themselves only about two and a half hours later.

The Ability to Pronounce "F" and "V" Sounds Might Have Evolved Along With Diet

Smithsonian Magazine

“French fries” might not be on the menu if not for ancient farmers, and not because we can now grow plenty of potatoes, but because it would be harder to enunciate the f sounds needed to order them. The ability to make labiodental sounds—which are sounds that require you to put your lower lip on your upper teeth, such as f and v soundsmay not have fully developed until agriculture introduced softer foods to the human diet, changing our jaws, according to an intriguing and controversial study published today in Science.

Orthodontists know that overbite, and the human jaw’s horizontal overlap called overjet, are common among people all over the world. But the study’s authors assert that such jaw structures were rarer in the Paleolithic Period, when hunter-gatherer’s rough diets demanded more force from teeth that met edge to edge. Agriculture softened our ancestors’ diets with processed gruels, stews and yogurts, and this fare led to gradually shrinking lower jaws to produce today’s overcrowded mouths. This diet-driven evolution of the human bite over the last 10,000 years might have shaped some of the sounds we use to communicate today.

University of Zurich linguist Balthasar Bickel hypothesizes that less wear and stress on teeth and jaws allowed overbite to persist more often, creating a close proximity between the upper teeth and lower lip that made it a bit easier to utter f and v sounds. (Try making a “fuh” sound, first with your upper and lower teeth aligned edge to edge and then, probably more successfully, with your bottom jaw pulled back so your lower lip can more easily touch your upper teeth.)

“One of the take-home messages is really that the landscape of sounds that we have is fundamentally affected by the biology of our speech apparatus,” Bickel said at a press conference this week. “It’s not just cultural evolution.”

The difference between a Paleolithic edge-to-edge bite (left) and a modern overbite/overjet bite (right). (Tímea Bodogán)

Each time ancient humans spoke, there was only a small chance of their slowly changing jaw configurations producing labiodental sounds, but like a genetic mutation, it could have caught on over time. “Every utterance that you make is a single trial. And if you think of this as going on for generations over generations, you have thousands and thousands of trials—with always this probability of changing—and that leaves the statistical signal we find in the end,” Bickel said.

Bickel and colleagues tested the idea that overbite helped produce labiodentals by building biomechanical models and making them talk. Their data suggest that making f and v sounds takes 29 percent less muscular effort when the speaker has an overbite/overjet configuration. The researchers then searched for real-world evidence of where labiodental sounds became more common over time.

“We looked into the distribution of labiodental sounds across thousands of languages and their relation to the characteristic sources of food of the people speaking those languages,” Damián Blasi, also of the University of Zurich, said at the press conference. The survey showed that languages spoken by modern hunter-gatherers use only about one-fourth as many labiodental sounds as other languages.

Tecumseh Fitch, an expert on bioacoustics and language evolution at the University of Vienna who was not involved in the new study, says the interdisciplinary approach of biomechanics, bioacoustics, comparative and historical linguistics came to him as a surprise. “This is probably the most convincing study yet showing how biological constraints on language change could themselves change over time due to cultural changes,” he says via email. “The study relies, inevitably, on various assumptions and reconstructions of unknown factors (especially bite structure in current and ancient populations), but I think the authors build a very plausible case that will open the door to future detailed research.”

Still, the evolutionary process remains far from clear. Despite today’s ubiquitous modern human dental orientations around the world, half of about 7,000 existing languages never started to regularly use labiodental sounds at all. And the correlation of the sounds with softer foods doesn’t always hold up. Cooking has been around for hundreds of thousands of years, easing the stress on human teeth and jaws. Ancient Chinese agriculture produced easy-chewing rice, yet f and v sounds aren’t as common in Chinese as they are in Germanic or Romance languages.

Bickel, Blasi and colleagues argue that the evolution of overbite simply meant labiodentals would be produced more often. “That doesn’t mean that labiodentals will emerge within all languages. It does mean that the probability of producing labiodentals increases slightly over time, and that means that some languages are likely to acquire them but not all languages will,” says co-author Steven Moran.

Not everyone is convinced that diet reshaped our tooth alignment in the first place, however. “They haven’t established even that a soft diet would give you an overbite,” says Philip Lieberman, a cognitive scientist at Brown University. “To relate that to diet it has to be epigenetic,” meaning chemical compounds that become attached to genes can change gene activity without altering the DNA sequence. “There has to be some sort of regulatory mechanism that is triggered directly from the environment or diet, and I don’t know of any data on an epigenetic effect restructuring [tooth and jaw position].” Even such a link wouldn’t convince Lieberman that the change prompted the rise of f and v sounds. “We can produce these sounds whether we have overbite or not,” he says. “There’s arbitrariness in language. People have different words for the same things, and I don’t think we can relate any of it to changes in teeth.”

Biomechanical model of producing an f sound with an overbite/overjet (left) vs an edge-to-edge bit(right). (Scott Moisik)

Evolutionary biologist Mark Pagel at the University of Reading found some of the authors suggestions more plausible. “If their argument that having that overbite or overjet has become more prominent in recent fossils is actually true, if you get a developmental change actually changing the shape of our mouths, then there’s a real plausibility to it,” he says, adding that sounds tend to develop via the path of least resistance. “We make more readily the sounds that are easier to make. We’re constantly introducing tiny little variants. And if the shape of your mouth means you are more likely to introduce some kind of variant … then they are just a bit more likely to catch on.”

Despite the correlation between mouth shape and sounds, paleoanthropologist Rick Potts of Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program has reservations about the study’s conclusion that changing diets caused a rise of labiodentals. “In my view they don’t provide sufficient reasons for us embracing diet as the reason for producing [more] v and f sounds because they don’t deal at all with the anatomy of producing those sounds.”

Making v and f sounds, Potts says, requires only very slight retraction of the temporal muscle on the side of the head, which draws the jaw backward with a very subtle movement. “How does a harder diet limit the retraction of the jaw?” he asks. “That’s the essence of being able to make the v and f sounds. They do not in any way demonstrate how a bite-to-bite configuration of the teeth inhibits or makes it more expensive to make these sounds. I can’t see anything in the way teeth are oriented toward one another that would limit the retraction of the jaw.”

Potts says the study identifies some intriguing correlations but falls short in demonstrating likely causation. As an example, he says that if researchers found that the color red was favored by equatorial peoples like the Masai, and they also found that such people had a lower density of light receptors in their retinas than Arctic people, they might conclude that lack of light receptors was a biological cause for preferring the color red.

“But how would you possibly discount the fact that it’s just cultural history why the Masai wear red whereas Arctic people tend not to?” he asks. “It’s just the way people distinguish themselves and it becomes passed on in ways that are geographically oriented. I’m just concerned that [the study] hasn’t given enough credit to the idea of the accidents of cultural history and identity being part of why v and f sounds are less frequent in certain groups of people worldwide than others.”

Balthasar Bickel, on the other hand, says that language has been too often regarded as a purely cultural or intellectual phenomenon, and he hopes his group’s work will help to open new lines of scientific inquiry. “I believe there is a huge potential out there for studying language as part of the biological system it really is embedded in.”

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