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Countdown to Owney (#4)

National Postal Museum
As you may have heard, on July 27, 2011, Owney will be honored with his very own postage stamp. To celebrate this great occasion, this is the fourth in a series of blogs celebrating some of Owney’s tags.

Countdown to Owney (#1)

National Postal Museum
Owney spent most of his time riding on mail trains. Clerks and others added medals and tags to the dog’s collar. These trinkets showed the many different places and people he visited. Some tags were made just for him, even if sometimes they spelled his name wrong.

Video Webcast Tomorrow: The Philately of New Zealand: Innovation Born of Necessity, 1855-1955

National Postal Museum
No matter where you live, you can join us tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET to enjoy a talk about the philately of New Zealand from 1855-1955, a country located at great distance from precious stamp-making supplies. Innovative methods were born of necessity, leading New Zealand's postal service to use ingenious techniques to recover and reuse materials, inadvertently adding to the richness of the country's philatelic material. Robert P. Odenweller will speak on this topic at the 9th Annual Maynard Sundman Lecture here at the museum, but many people will tune in online to watch the live webcast.

A TwainTennial

National Postal Museum
By Nancy Pope, Historian and CuratorDoes it seem as though you’ve heard a lot more about author Mark Twain lately? The author was born in Florida, Missouri as Samuel Clemens on November 30, 1835 making this year, the 175th anniversary of his birth. This year also marks the 100th anniversary of his death. It is this last occasion that has been marked by his latest best seller. That’s right, 100 years after his death, Twain continues to rule the best seller charts as his unabridged autobiography finally sees the light of day.According to Robert Hirst, curator of the Mark Twain Papers at UC Berkeley, Twain “liked to say nasty things—he’s really good at it—but he didn’t like the idea of being there when the person heard them, and was hurt by them.”[1]

Newberry College Graphic Design Students Tackle Postage Stamps

National Postal Museum
By Alexander Haimann, Collections SpecialistThis is the first in a series of NPM Blog Posts highlighting the postage stamp designs of Newberry College graphic design students. Click Here To Learn More: NPM & Postal History Objects Come To Newberry College In South CarolinaNewberry College Junior—Elmano Hamilton

November 1 Last Day to View Extraordinary William H. Gross Philatelic Objects

National Postal Museum
Only seven days left to see the extraordinary philatelic objects generously loaned by William H. Gross, currently on...

Announcing The 2009 Nobel Prize Winners

National Postal Museum
By Alexander Haimann, Collections Specialist© United States Postal Service. All rights reserved.

Remembering 9/11

National Postal Museum
By Alexander Haimann, Collections Specialist© United States Postal Service. All rights reserved.The National Postal Museum remembers and honors the people employed in the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon, the emergency responders, airline passengers and others from all walks of life who were killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.In 2002, Congress directed the Smithsonian Institution in Public Law 107-117 to "collect and preserve...artifacts relating to the September 11th attacks." A number of postal related artifacts connected to the attacks are in the National Postal Museum’s permanent collection in order to preserve the memory of the victims and that devastating attack on the American homeland.

Oral history interview with Otis Dozier, 1965 June 10

Archives of American Art
Transcript: 16 pages

An interview of Otis Dozier conducted 1965 June 10, by Sylvia Loomis, for the Archives of American Art New Deal and the Arts Project.

Oral history interview with John Egner, 1979 June 6

Archives of American Art
Transcript: 150 pages

An interview of John Egner conducted 1979 June 6, by Marsha Miro, for the Archives of American Art.

Oral history interview with Louisa Etcheverry, 1964 Sept. 23

Archives of American Art
Sound recording: 1 sound tape reel ; 5 in.

Tracnscipt: 11 p.

An interview of Louisa Etcheverry conducted 1964 Sept. 23 by Betty Hoag for the Archives of American Art.

Oral history interview with Donald S. Vogel, 1979 September 18-November 28

Archives of American Art
Transcript: 163 pages

An interview of Donald S. Vogel conducted 1979 September 18-November 28, by Lisa Laughlin (Ferguson), for the Archives of American Art.

Oral history interview with Leonard Castellanos, 1972 December 26

Archives of American Art
Transcript: 15 pages

Interview of Leonard Castellanos conducted 1972 December 26, by Allen Bassing, for the Archives of American Art. Castellanos discusses his educational background, his reasons for becoming involved in community art, his role as director of the Mechicano Art Center in East Los Angeles, and working with Victor Franco. He recalls various projects at the Center, the politics of art funding and the value of community-based art programs.

Oral history interview with Alvin Ross, 1964-1968

Archives of American Art
Transcript: 15 pages.

An interview of Alvin Ross conducted 1964-1968, by Dorothy Seckler, for the Archives of American Art.

Oral history interview with Hudson Dean Walker, 1969 October 22-28

Archives of American Art
Transcript: 109 pages

An interview of Hudson Dean Walker conducted 1969 October 22-28, by Paul Cummings, for the Archives of American Art.

The Foxfire Diamond Bedazzles as Smithsonian's Newest Rock Star

Smithsonian Magazine

The largest gem-quality diamond ever found in North America is on display at the Smithsonian for three months in its rough, uncut state. 

“It's a really unusual chance for people to see this rare diamond,” says Jeffrey Post, curator of the National Gem and Mineral Collection at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. “It isn't something that happens very often. This may be the only chance in your life to see such a thing.”

Diamonds tend to be highly concentrated in small areas underground where ancient volcanic eruptions pushed magma upward through tubes. The magma solidified into an igneous rock called kimberlite. Scattered through the kimberlite left within the tube are diamonds that were pushed upwards with the magma.

The 187.63 carat Foxfire diamond was almost discarded when it was unearthed in August 2015 at the Diavik diamond mine, above the Arctic Circle in Canada's Northwest Territories. The mine was not known for large diamonds like the Foxfire, but rather much smaller stones. The chances of a large diamond coming through the sorting system were believed to be so slim that all large stones were assumed to be kimberlite, thus filtered and crushed. The Foxfire diamond could have been crushed, but because of its somewhat elongated shape, it slipped through the sifting screen. 

The name Foxfire pays homage to the aboriginal name for the aurora borealis, which Post says looks like "foxtails swishing away in the sky.” 

In June 2016, Deepak Sheth of Amadena Investments, who trades in historic or unique stones, purchased the uncut diamond at auction (the exact price has not been publicly disclosed) and then did an unusual thing. He allowed the Smithsonian's scientists to borrow it. 

“In some way, it's like diamonds are like meteorites from deep in the earth,” Post says.

Most diamonds appear to have been created between one and three billion years ago roughly a hundred miles beneath the surface of the Earth. Diamonds can help geologists understand Earth's history, says Post.

During past volcanic eruptions, “diamonds were brought to the surface, giving us a glimpse into a part of the Earth we can't otherwise study,” Post says.

In order to find out more about the Foxfire diamond's composition, Post exposed the uncut gemstone to different types of light and used a spectrograph to see how the various elements in the diamond were reflecting the light. A funny thing was discovered along the way.

“One of the interesting properties of this diamond is that if you go in a dark room and turn on a black light, it glows bright blue. It lights up the room,” Post says. “There are a number of diamonds that do this, but this does so quite a lot. This happens through trace amounts of nitrogen. By doing spectral analysis of that light, we can tell how much nitrogen might be there.”

It gets weirder.

“What is unusual, is that when you turn the light off [the diamond] continues to glow. First a deep orange color and then it fades to a creamy white glow. So that phosphorescence can tell us something about how that diamond was formed. . . . It gives us this interesting insight into its history that we wouldn't get just by looking at it.”

Larger diamonds have been found elsewhere in the world. South Africa's enormous Cullinan diamond weighed 3,106.75 carats before it was cut into numerous stones. But diamonds from North America are particularly valued because of their relatively clean provenance. Unlike many African diamonds, the stones that come from Canada's mines are not associated with conflicts or wars. Environmental protection standards are high. The microscopic maple leaves and polar bears etched into each diamond helps ensure that buyers know what they are getting.

This geology allows diamond mines to be relatively compact mining operations that can be restored to a healthy wild condition after mining operations are completed. The Canadian government requires that plans for restoration be made before mining even begins.

“With a diamond mine, it's not like oil where you have to pump it some place,” Post says. “You've got one hole in the ground that is a very well defined area, but the area around it can be pretty well returned [as habitat for wildlife]. This one mine, they are literally mining through a lake. In the end, this thing might very well fill up with water again and just be a deeper lake.”

With the passage of time, the Diavik mine will eventually become that deeper lake and for a brief period, the Foxfire diamond is available for anyone who wants to see it.

“It's a one time opportunity,” Post says.

The Foxfire diamond will be on view in the Harry Winston Gallery next to the Smithsonian's famous Hope Diamond at the National Museum of Natural History through February 16, 2017.

How Bird Poop Could Help Keep the Arctic Cool

Smithsonian Magazine

The fight against climate change has led to some strange discoveries: researchers recently found that feeding cows seaweed could reduce the methane content of their burps, others have suggested that dumping iron into the ocean may superpower carbon dioxide-munching phytoplankton, and still others are experimenting with injecting carbon into the ground to turn it into stone.

Now, researchers are turning to bird poop. A new study, published in the journal Nature Communicationssuggests that excrement from our feathered friends has the power to cool the Arctic, reports Jennifer Viegas at Discovery News.

The new study, led by Betty Croft of Dalhousie University, focuses on how ammonia created from seabird poop affects the atmospheric chemistry of the Arctic by spurring the formation of clouds that can keep the region cool.

“There is a connection between ecology and climate that certainly surprised me. The environment is very interconnected,” study author Gregory Wentworth tells Eva Botkin-Kowacki at The Christian Science Monitor. “How often do you hear about bird droppings being able to affect climate?”

Fish is full of nitrogen, writes Viegas. And this delicious seafood treat is a favorite of colony-nesting seabirds like terns, puffins, murres and kittiwakes. After digestion, the seabirds squirt out lots of guano, which is full of uric acid produced from that nitrogen. The guano is then broken down by microbes, which releases ammonia,  into the atmosphere. It combines with sulfuric acid and water vapor, forming particles which eventually collect water vapor and glom together, creating clouds.  

“The cooling effects occur when the clouds are reflecting sunlight back into space,” Wentworth tells Viegas. “This effect is largest for clouds over darker surfaces, such as the open ocean, and is relatively minor over bright surfaces like sea ice and snow.”

The researchers were tipped off to the ammonia-guano connection during a trip the Canadian Arctic two years ago when air samples showed high amounts of ammonia during the times when the temperature was above freezing, according to a press release. The Arctic does not have the large concentrations of agriculture or industry that usually produces so much ammonia. So they looked around and soon tracked the source to the birds. 

It seems impossible that seabirds could generate enough poop to create actual clouds. But hoards of birds flock to the arctic every year, reports Botkin-Kowacki, leaving behind an estimated 33,000 tons of ammonia. The researchers modeled the influence of this smelly compound in the generation of low-lying clouds. They found that this type of cloud cover could block about one watt per square meter of heat during warmer months.

“The research is important because it shows yet another way in which the biosphere is controlling aerosols and climate. This information is vital in order to more accurately determine how human activities have altered aerosols,” Ken Carslaw, director of the Institute for Climate and Atmospheric Science at the University of Leeds, tells Viegas.

While spreading more guano across the Arctic would do little to stop climate change, it is sobering to point out that in the last 50 years, researchers estimate that seabird populations have plummeted by nearly 70 percent worldwide.

Though more work is necessary to confirm this study's findings, reports Botkin-Kowacki, this study further demonstrates the amazing complexities of the biosphere.

Don't Miss This Month's Rare Planetary Alignment

Smithsonian Magazine

Step outside this week into the chilly predawn to see the planet Mercury peak over the horizon. Then trace an arc across the sky to pick out Venus, Saturn, Mars and Jupiter. All five will be visible together for the first time since 2005.

The latter four planets have been shining in the early morning since the beginning of the year, writes Tanya Hill for The Conversation. "It is the appearance of Mercury that makes the family complete," she adds. Take in the spectacle sometime around January 20, depending on your location.

Mercury usually hangs close to the horizon and is the most difficult to see. But it will gradually cross higher in the sky and by early February it will be easier to spot.

Starting January 28, the waning moon will travel along the line of planets, starting out at Jupiter and resting near Mercury by February 7. Venus and Saturn will dance in particularly close conjunction on February 9, report Bruce McClure and Deborah Byrd for EarthSky.org

Since each planet orbits at different distances from the Sun and takes different periods of time to complete a year, this kind of alignment in the Earth's sky is rare. The fact that they do stack up in a line is visual proof that the planets do orbit on roughly the same plane, Hill writes.

“There are only a few amazing things in the night sky that can be seen without any equipment,” Alan Duffy, a research fellow at Swinburne University in Melbourne tells Anne Johnson of Australian Geographic. The planetary alignment is one of of them, and worth an early rise. Duffy does caution that some people may have to travel farther than their front stoop to get an unobstructed view of the horizon. Trees, buildings, and city lights can all block the rare views.

So make sure you prepare for the show, and figure out when Mercury will rise near you using the United States Naval Observatory's webpage. Hope for clear skies and bundle up because this may be the best view of the five planets aligned for quite a while. According to EarthSky.org, though the group will gather again in August, only those in the Southern Hemisphere will really get to see the next show.

Scientists Discover a Large and Feathered Dinosaur that Once Roamed North America

Smithsonian Magazine

Some 66 million years ago, a feathered dinosaur with a toothless beak and a crested head roamed the stretch of mild, subtropical land that is today known as Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas. A cross between a lizard and a chicken in appearance, its limbs were long and graceful and, counting its tail, it stretched to 11 feet in length. Despite an unassuming stature of just five feet, the dinosaur wasn’t without its defenses: Large, sharp claws tipped its forelimbs.

The new bird-like species Anzu wyliei was identified from three partial skeletons that together make up almost an entire skeleton of the species. (Courtesy Bob Walters)

The species, newly named Anzu wyliei and described by researchers at Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the University of Utah, belongs to Oviraptorosauria, a group of dinosaurs known for nearly a century from a few bits of fossilized bone in North America, but more substantial specimens from Asia.

“With the discovery of A. wyliei, we finally have the fossil evidence to show what this species looked like, and how it is related to other dinosaurs,” says Hans-Dieter Sues, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the National Museum of Natural History and a member of the team that published a paper on A. wyliei in PLOS One.

Smithsonian scientists, Hans-Dieter Sues (right) and Tyler Lyson (left), examine a reconstructed Anzu wyliei skull. (Brittany Hance, Smithsonian Institution)

To reconstruct A. wyliei, the team analyzed three partial skeletons, all found in the fossil-rich Hell Creek Formation, a late Cretaceous rock deposit that was once a swampy forest.

Private collectors dug up two of the skeletons only 50 feet from one another in a portion of the formation in South Dakota, and they were later purchased by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, where Sues, an expert in Oviraptorosauria, previously worked. The third Anzu skeleton was discovered by Tyler Lyson, now a post-doctorate at the Natural History Museum, who first sighted the bones as a teenager while exploring his uncle’s ranch in North Dakota.

The three fossils were discovered at the sites in North and South Dakota marked by the stars. (Courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Natural History)

In 2006, Lyson and Emma Schachner of the University of Utah attended a meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. There, they presented a poster describing their bones: three vertebrae, a radius, an ulna, a rib and a scapulocoracoid, a shoulder bone. While at the conference, they met Sues and Matthew Lamanna, the new paper’s lead author and assistant curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, who had been studying the two skeletons from the Carnegie Museum. Each had heard about the other group’s skeleton, and they were curious to compare notes to see if the similar-sounding fossils were related.

“It was quite clear that all three specimens belonged to the same new species,” says Sues. “So we suggested that we just pool our fossils and work on them as a team.”

It took the team eight years to reconstruct and study Anzu, creating a skeleton that was 75 to 80 percent complete. Along the way, the researchers came to some interesting conclusions: Because it had jaws that could cut and shear food but no teeth, Lyson and Sues assume it ate both animals and plants, and perhaps eggs. Two of the specimens had injuries. One a broken rib, and another an arthritic toe, which Lamanna says was probably “excruciatingly painful.” The two animals, he says, “led pretty rough lives.”

This reconstruction shows the skull of Anzu wyliei, including its large toothless beak, which suggests that the species may have been omnivorous. (James Di Loreto, Smithsonian Institution )

Paleontologists have long guessed that dinosaurs like Anzu existed in North America because of bits of bone found that resembled other Oviraptorosauria fossils known from Asia. In 1997, Sues published a paper that linked Oviraptorosauria jaw and hand specimens found in North America. But the specimens from Asia tended to be smaller and have shorter, fatter legs, as well as different beaks and lower jaws.

“We knew that there was a group of Oviraptorosaurs in North America, but we didn’t know many fundamental things about them,” Lamanna says. “What they looked like, how exactly they were related to their Asian cousins, how they lived, how big they got, all these things. Anzu helps to answer all of these questions.”

One question, however, that stymied Lamanna was what to name the creature. "It looks like a giant, scary bird," says Lamanna, who, along with colleagues, nicknamed it the ‘Chicken From Hell.’

"So I wanted to try to invoke that nickname in coming up with an official name for the animal, because I think it’s a pretty good description.” Lamanna eventually decided upon “Anzu,” a feathered demon from Mesopotamian mythology.

Anzu’s skeleton has solved some mysteries, but not all of them, says James Clark, a paleontologist at George Washington University who was not involved in the study. “They’ve got these weird heads, but the rest of the body doesn’t look much different than the Velociraptor,” a medium-sized predator with large, sickle-shaped toe claws, known from a few million years earlier in the late Cretaceous.

According to Sues, another potential A. wyliei skeleton was discovered in the Hell Creek Formation last summer. And unlike the recently reconstructed Anzu skeleton, this one includes a foot, which could offer new details.

Help for the Brokenhearted: Wearable, Biosynthetic and 'Beatless' Artificial Hearts

Smithsonian Magazine

Jilted valentines may say there's no cure for a broken heart. But help is on the way for those whose actual hearts are ailing, thanks to an innovative suite of technologies that could one day benefit the millions of people suffering from heart failure.

The heart uses four chambers to pump blood throughout the body: one atrium and one ventricle on each side. After blood is enriched with oxygen in the lungs, it's sent into the left atrium and through the left ventricle so it can be pumped throughout the body. Oxygen-depleted blood returns to the heart's right atrium, then moves to the right ventricle and is pumped back into the lungs.

Most heart transplant patients have been hospitalized multiple times for severe heart failure because one or both sides of their hearts don't function properly. That's commonly caused by damage to heart muscles or the chambers' valves, coronary heart disease, hereditary conditions or viral infections.

“Wearable” Heart Machines

The Jarvik-7 artificial heart was made of polyurethane, and each chamber was about the size of a fist. (Bettmann/CORBIS)

Only 2,000 to 2,500 donor hearts become available each year in the U.S., which means that thousands of critically ill patients must wait months or even years for a transplant—if they can survive that long. The SynCardia Total Artificial Heart, heir to technology used in the famed Jarvik devices of the 1980s, is by far the most commonly used artificial heart, with more than 1,350 successful implants since it was approved for use. It acts as a critical bridge, enabling patients suffering from biventricular end-stage heart failure to survive until a human transplant becomes available.

Until recently, though, many people using the SynCardia device were confined to the hospital, because the heart's motors and electronics are housed outside the body in a large, heavy driver device. The driver connects to the artificial heart with two tubes, and it creates an artificial heartbeat by filling “balloons” inside the device's artificial ventricles. That pushes blood out into the circulatory system at a rate of 2.5 gallons per minute. The system simplifies the moving parts inside the artificial heart itself, which accounts, in part, for its extremely low failure rate of less than one percent.

But the reduced quality of life for patients stuck in a hospital room can take its toll. So after four years of tests, the FDA approved the Freedom portable driver in July 2014. In use in Europe since 2010, this device enables patients to replace the dishwasher-sized hospital drivers with a smaller unit that weighs just 13.5 pounds. It can be carried in a backpack or wheeled in a rolling caddy or walker. The unit runs on lithium-ion batteries and can be recharged by plugging into a standard wall outlet or car charger, allowing patients to return home and live relatively normal lives while awaiting transplants.

How much can the device help an artificial heart recipient? Consider the case of Randy Shepherd: As a teenager, his heart had been damaged by rheumatic fever and its two ventricles could no longer pump enough blood to keep him alive. Shepherd received a SynCardia heart in June 2013. Less than a year later, Shepherd used his Freedom unit to complete a 4.2-mile walk as an entrant in Pat's Run near Phoenix, Arizona.

“While I don’t necessarily feel inspirational, I do feel [that] showing people what is possible is important, that life doesn’t end with a bad medical diagnosis,” he wrote soon after the event in a Reddit Ask Me Anything. Shepherd, known as the "Tin Man,” received a donor heart transplant in October 2014 after living with his artificial heart for 15 months. He speculates that the physical activity he was able to enjoy with the Freedom unit may have even increased his odds of a successful recovery.

Part Machine, Part Cow

A CARMAT artificial heart. (CARMAT)

For most patients, a SynCardia heart is meant to be a stopgap until a donor heat is available. The more challenging goal is to design a permanent solution.

In France, researchers are using a mix of artificial and biological components to do just that. The CARMAT artificial heart is made of two chambers divided in half by a membrane. One side is home to a pumping system of motors and fluids, which move the membrane to force blood from the other side out into the circulatory system. Sensors and microelectronic controls monitor pressure and adjust flow rates to match a patient's activity—allowing the heart rate to accommodate exercise, for example.

The membrane surface facing the pumping system is made of polyurethane, while the flip side in contact with human blood has been constructed of tissues from cow hearts. The heart's artificial valves are also made of cow tissue, and designers hope that these chemically sterilized biological materials will alleviate problems that have plagued past artificial hearts. For instance, the body's incompatibility with synthetic materials can destroy red blood cells or trigger clotting.

The CARMAT heart's first recipient, a terminally ill 76-year-old man, received the implant in December 2013 and died in March of the following year. The second patient to be fitted with the device left Nantes University Hospital on January 19 armed with a light, portable external battery supply. The man received the heart last summer as part of a clinical trial.

“Our greatest reward has been the patient’s joy at not only reclaiming a level of activity that was unthinkable just a few months ago thanks to the bioprosthesis, but more importantly being able to live a real life at home with family and friends,” CARMAT chief executive officer Marcello Conviti said in a press statement.

Living Without a Heartbeat 

In addition to risks from biological rejection, a big problem for artificial heart designers has been matching the incredible durability of Mother Nature's design. A healthy human heart has to pump some 35 million times a year, an incredible workload that engineers have had a hard time accommodating with any device.

Researchers at the Texas Heart Institute are tackling that problem with an end run around the issue—creating a heart that doesn't beat at all, but instead provides a continual flow of blood. Their BiVACOR total artificial heart concept has some proven history behind it. When both sides of a heart are failing, a transplant becomes necessary. But if only one side isn't pumping properly, the heart may be treated with flow-boosting implants. Left Ventricular Assist Devices (LVADs) are continuous-flow implants that boost ailing hearts with a constantly spinning impeller that pushes blood through the body—sometimes taking over most or nearly all of the human heart's pumping output. More than 20,000 people currently sport these turbine-like heart helpers.

Seeking to expand this technology to whole-heart replacement, researchers have designed a device with just one moving part: a rotor with two blades that spins within a small titanium chamber. A smaller blade forces blood through the right chamber to the lungs, while a larger one moves it out of the left chamber to the circulatory system and through the body. The rotor is suspended by magnetic fields, which further reduces wear by eliminating friction. MAGLEV technology controls the rotation of the blades to match the user's activity level.

The BiVACOR heart is one of the few options small enough to be implanted in a child, a key advance over other artificial efforts that can be too bulky even for smaller adults. Like all artificial heart technologies to date, the system has potential downsides. Replacing the natural pumping with a propeller subjects the blood to a bit of frothing that may promote internal bleeding, strokes or other complications. But the concept has at least one early success story.

A previous version of BiVACOR was implanted in a terminally ill patient, Craig Lewis, at the Texas Heart Institute in March 2011. Lewis lived for six weeks before dying of liver and kidney failure related to his heart condition, which was so dire that no current treatment would have delivered a longer lifespan. But he proved that it was possible to survive for longer than thought possible with just the gentle whirring noise of a propeller inside his chest.

For Father's Day, Take Dad on a Tour of the Smithsonian Museums

Smithsonian Magazine

Remember that first time Dad took you sledding? We've crafted a tour for just you and Dad to be together again. Take him on a Smithsonian museums journey to see Muhammad Ali’s gloves, Archie Bunker’s chair, Chuck Yeager's Bell X-1, a moon rock and other Smithsonian artifacts.

At your first stop in downtown Washington, D.C., at the National Museum of American History, check out the Star Spangled Banner and Duke Ellington's Wurlitzer piano. Visit the National Air and Space Museum and show him a Douglas DC-3. Next, visit the National Portrait Gallery at 8th and F Streets to see sports greats like Reggie Jackson and check out a sculpture of the father of our country, George Washington. At the National Postal Museum on Capitol Hill, fall in love with the postal pup Owney and learn his incredible story. 

The award-winning, responsive-design website fits your phone, tablet and computer and can be used to make an itinerary for easy printout and planning—just simply select the artifacts and artworks you want to visit and create your itinerary. Our other themed tours include: African American Stories; World War I; The Presidents and Garden Lover. You can also use the Smithsonian.com Museum Tour guide to find artifacts and other highlights for your visit simply by navigating to the museum and selecting the items you are looking for.

When you’ve completed your excursion in downtown D.C, take Dad to the National Zoo in Rock Creek Park to end the day with orangutans and the elephants. An elephant never forgets, and neither will he.


 

Another Step Closer to Male Birth Control Pills

Smithsonian Magazine

Scientists studying fertility in mice may have discovered a potential method for creating a birth control pill for men that involves blocking a single protein. 

These days, birth control most often falls to women, who have a variety of hormonal birth control medications available. Aside from condoms, there are few birth control options for men who don’t want a permanent vasectomy.

The most promising reversible solution for men is a product called Vasalgel—an injectable gel that plugs up the vas deferens, preventing the passage of sperm—but it has yet to be submitted for review by the Food and Drug Administration. Tests in animals suggest it is reversible and could be effective for up to 10 years with a single dose, but it does requires minor surgery, Loren Gush writes for The Verge. A male oral contraceptive would prevent unwanted pregnancies without forcing men to go under the knife. 

"Existing male contraceptives don't come close to filling the need," Aaron Hamlin, executive director of the Male Contraception Initiative, tells Amy Norton for HealthDay.

A new study published this week in Science shows that in a reversible process, blocking a single protein involved in sperm production renders male mice infertile.

Several drugs currently on the market manipulate versions of this protein to relieve symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and to suppress immune system reactions for organ transplants. But recently, a group of scientists in Japan led by Masahito Ikawa identified an iteration of the protein only found in sperm cells, Karen Kaplan writes for the L.A. Times. Blocking the protein prevents sperm from swimming fast enough to penetrate an egg. 

Ikawa and colleagues genetically altered male mice so that they couldn't produce calcineurin. They discovered that these mice were unable to impregnate females, but were otherwise healthy. The team also dosed non-genetically altered males with a drug that blocks calcineurin. After about five days, the male mice were infertile. But when the mice went off the drug, they could once again sire offspring within four or five days, Gush writes.

While this is a promising development, male birth control pills won't show up at the pharmacy anytime soon. There is still question of its effectives and safety for human use. Even so, the presence of drugs that act on similar proteins already on the market could mean faster production of the contraceptive. 

"It is important that we find an effective and reversible contraceptive option to allow men more control over their own reproductive futures," Ikawa tells Norton. "The findings of this study may be a key step to giving men that control."

Editor's note (October 9, 2015): This story has been updated to clarify that vasalgel is still in early stages of testing and is not currently under review by the Food and Drug Administration.

How Decorative Gourd Season Conquered Fall

Smithsonian Magazine

They’re otherworldly, weird-looking and sport names like Turk's Turban, Goblin Eggs and Lunch Lady. This autumn, you'll find them in rustic baskets across America. They’re decorative gourds, and as NPR’s Vanessa Rancano reports, they’ve become an increasingly hot commodity for farmers.

While squash are among the earliest plants domesticated by humans, Rancano writes, the most bizarre varieties have recently come into vogue as seasonal ornaments. Gourd breeders tell Rancano that they've spend decades perfecting colorfully gnarled squash, which they sell at auction to farmers' market vendors, restaurant owners, or grocers — and at high markup to fall fanatics. 

The decorative gourd is no niche fad, either; its price nearly doubled between 1993 and 2007. They're so popular they’ve sparked data analyses of precisely when their season begins and ends, wildly shared parodies and helped support a grassroots tradition of folk crafts. (Painted birdhouses, anyone?) Perhaps this demand can be chalked up to the commodification of autumn — a celebration of all things fall that spreads from Starbucks lattes and flavored Twinkies to “fall-scented” kitty litter.

Or maybe, the rise of the gourd is part of a broader food trend: a move towards cherishing ugly, funky-looking fruits and vegetables. With everything from “imperfect” CSAs to art projects about ugly produce finding acclaim, it's safe to say misshapen crops are having a culinary moment. Ugly produce makes up to 40 percent of food waste in some countries — so it's about time that twisted squash gets a place in the spotlight.

How Chocolate and Valentine's Day Mated for Life

Smithsonian Magazine

There’s nothing chaste about chocolate. Movies, which capture our inner cravings in freeze-framed moments, have always understood this. From the earliest days of “talkies,” chocolate has been cast as the go-to symbol of seduction. Jean Harlow’s performance in the 1933 film Dinner at Eight forever linked chocolate to decadent indulgence. Draped in satin and sequins, she lounges in bed on a heart-shaped pillow, and—finishing touch—suggestively nibbles her way through a giant box of chocolates.

It turns out that chocolate really has a history as a love food. Passion for chocolate is rooted in Mesoamerican history. It was a highly-prized luxury item among Mayan and Aztec upper class elites, who were known to savor a drink that combined roasted cacao beans with cornmeal, vanilla, honey and chilies. Cacao beans were as valuable a commodity as gold, and were even used to pay taxes levied by Aztec rulers.

By the early 1600s, the vogue for chocolate had swept across Europe. In London, chocolate houses began to rival coffee houses as social gathering spots. One shop opened on Gracechurch Street in 1657 advertising chocolate as “a West Indian drink (which) cures and preserves the body of many diseases." In France, Madame de Sevigne wrote about enormous chocolate consumption throughout the court at Versailles in 1671; Louis IV drank it daily and Madame du Barry was said to use chocolate mixed with amber to stimulate her lovers.

When Marie Antoinette married Louis XVI in 1770, she brought her personal chocolate maker to Versailles. The official “Chocolate Maker to the Queen” created such recipes as “chocolate mixed with orchid bulb for strength, chocolate with orange blossom to calm the nerves, or chocolate with sweet almond milk to aid the digestion.”

Chocolate’s connection to Valentine’s Day is a prime example of virtue finding its just reward, although it took centuries for the two essentials elements—the rise of chocolate as a popular food, and the celebration of Valentine’s Day as a holiday—to merge.

The origin of Valentine’s Day is attributed to various early Christian martyrs named Valentine, but it’s linkage to romantic love seems to appear first in Chaucer’s 1382 poem,  Parlement of Foules.  Chaucer here describes the nature of love when “every bird cometh to choose his mate” on “seynt Voantynes day.”

Madame du Barry was said to use chocolate mixed with amber to stimulate her lovers. (Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS)

In the following centuries, Valentine’s Day blossomed as an increasingly popular late winter-early spring holiday. Songs, poetry and roses celebrated hearts brimming with love, though candy was not yet involved because sugar was still a precious commodity in Europe.

By the time Victoria became Queen in 1837, technology was poised to transform Valentine’s Day into a commercial bonanza. Victorians loved showering their significant others with Cupid-bedecked gifts and cards, but Valentine’s Day was about to get happier.

Richard Cadbury, whose British family manufactured chocolate, was searching for a way to use the pure cocoa butter that was extracted from the process Cadbury had invented to make a more palatable drinking chocolate. His solution was “eating chocolates,” which he packaged in lovely boxes he designed himself. A marketing genius, Cadbury began putting the Cupids and rosebuds on heart-shaped boxes in 1861: even when the chocolates had been eaten, people could use the beautiful boxes to save such mementos as love letters.

The commercialization of Valentine’s Day flourished in America at the turn of the century. Chocolate pioneer Milton Hershey started as a caramel maker, but in 1894 began covering his caramels with sweet chocolate. In 1907, Hershey launched production of tear-dropped shaped “kisses,” so-called because of the smooching noise the chocolate made as it was manufactured. Mass-produced at an affordable cost, the kisses were advertised as “a most nourishing food.”

When it comes to commercial chocolate, no one has outdone Russell Stover. The company began when Clara Stover started wrapping “Bungalow Candies” in her Denver kitchen in 1923. She and her husband moved to Kansas City and opened several factories, selling their Valentine’s chocolates in heart-shaped boxes to department stores across the Midwest. Eventually, Russell Stover bought out Whitman’s, their biggest competitor, and refocused their wholesale business on drugstores and big-box retailers like Walmart and Target.

One of their biggest-sellers is the “Secret Lace Heart,” a chocolate box covered in satin and black lace.  The so-called “lingerie box” is affordable and easily-accessible, stocked on store shelves for easy grab-and-go sales. The strategy works: today, with 3,000 employees and $600 million in annual sales, Russell Stover is the number one boxed-chocolate company in the U.S.

Jean Harlow may have inspired chocolate’s satin-and-lace reputation for decadence, but Lucille Ball found another way to demonstrate how chocolate makes people smile. One of the most celebrated episodes of I Love Lucy featured Lucy and Ethel working on a chocolate factory assembly line. Of course, chaos reigns; the portrait of Lucy’s cheeks bulging as she tries to “hide” chocolates is as screamingly funny today as it was sixty years ago.

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