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It's All in the Watershed

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Website offers students a foundation for exploring their local watershed to learn about 'the web of life' and what they can do about 'watershed worries.'Though written about the Chesapeake Bay watershed, non-Marylanders can apply this information to their local environments. Includes information on 'the web of life,' geology, history of the Chesapeake, current scientific research, and what you can do to make a difference.

Can, Sample Container, Special Environment, Lunar, Apollo

National Air and Space Museum
All of the Apollo lunar landing missions were equipped with containers specially designed to isolate small rock or soil samples from possible contamination during transfer from the lunar surface back to the lunar receiving laboratory on Earth. The open end of the can had a knife edge and the lid was fitted with an indium/silver seal, each of which was protected by a Teflon sheet until just before closure by the astronauts. Once filled with a small lunar sample and sealed the contents, including the near vacuum sample of the lunar atmosphere, could be analyzed on Earth to reveal uncontaminated details of chemical composition.

This is an example of the container portion of the larger of the two container types, the so named Special Environmental Sample Container, flown on each of the six successful lunar missions. Transferred to the Museum in 1974 along with a large number of items used during training, its actual use is not documented.

The (display) case of the Ruby Slippers

National Museum of American History

Many noses are pressed against the case that houses Dorothy's Ruby Slippers each day. The famous shoes from The Wizard of Oz attract a lot of attention—the site of many selfies and squeals during the gallery's opening weekend.

But how many people notice the case that holds them? Very few.

Acting like a "preservation chamber," it does much more than provide security for the precious shoes. It keeps all 20 materials in the Ruby Slippers in an ideal environment to preserve them for generations to come.

Here's what's special about the case of the Ruby Slippers.

In a display case, the Ruby Slippers, kitten heels covered in red sequins with a bow. Behind them, "We're not in Kansas anymore" quote in white, all-caps, bold typeface on a mural that is green with big, red poppies.Back on display after a trip to the museum's Conservation Lab, the Ruby Slippers sparkle in a new, hard-working display case.

Finding just the right environment for an 80-year-old pair of shoes

Each material in the Ruby Slippers reacts to temperature and humidity differently, so identifying the perfect environment for long-term preservation was a big challenge for Objects Conservator Dawn Wallace and Chief Conservator Richard Barden. To determine the conditions preferred by each material, Wallace and Barden worked with scientists at the Smithsonian's Museum Conservation Institute to identify the materials and research their particular needs. Most of the materials are organic—the leather in the shoes' construction, the gelatin in the sequins—and those can be tricky because they can be very sensitive to some humidity and temperature ranges.

After identifying ideal conditions for each material, it was a game of finding just the right compromise. Many materials require a cooler temperature with a steady humidity level around 47–50%. If the humidity level drops too low, other materials may become brittle.

Woman wearing purple latex gloves presses gently into the inside of one of the Ruby Slippers into a case.Objects Conservator Dawn Wallace installs the Ruby Slippers in the museum's new gallery.

Lights! Camera! No wait, LESS lights! 

Light is one of the most damaging environmental factors and has to be minimized, but visitors also need to be able to see and appreciate Dorothy's sparkling shoes. The case's glass protects the shoes against harmful ultraviolet wavelengths.

Keep it steady

Once Wallace and Barden had the light, temperature, and humidity settings just right, their work wasn't done—and it never will be. Maintaining a steady environment with minimal fluctuations is critical. In Washington, D.C., we have heat waves, snow days, and lots of unpredictable weather in between. Our Preservation Services team will be monitoring carefully to make sure conditions for the Ruby Slippers remain optimal. The Ruby Slippers' case provides that data in real time and can detect sudden changes. It will notify staff so they can set things right.

Keep out the bad guys

Yes, protecting against theft is important. Another pair of Ruby Slippers was stolen from a Minnesota museum in 2005 and recently recovered—and we take object security extremely seriously. But there are other baddies we need to keep at bay: pollutants. Dust and other environmental pollutants are not welcome in the case, thanks to a sophisticated system to filter out harmful particles. After Wallace individually cleaned each sequin with a tiny vacuum, she's especially motivated to keep this pair of shoes as clean as possible.

Ruby Slippers in a case with a black bottom and clear top. Rectangular. Gallery has a green circle on the floor with grey around it. "There's no place like home" in white on wall with mural of red poppies on green background.Surrounded by a curtain and a mural featuring big, colorful poppies, the Ruby Slippers gallery is carefully lit to maximize visibility while protecting the objects.

Don't steal the spotlight

Despite the many components working hard within the case to keep the Ruby Slippers preserved, the case's exterior remains sleek to give the shoes the spotlight. The case fits attractively into the gallery's overall design without calling attention to itself. When the Ruby Slippers move to our entertainment exhibition, the case will work seamlessly into its new setting.

So when you come to admire the Ruby Slippers, take a moment to behold the case that preserves them. Everyone at the museum is especially thankful for our "Keep Them Ruby" Kickstarter backers who not only supported the conservation of Dorothy's shoes but also helped us provide them with this hardworking, sophisticated case.

Group photo in front of a colorful mural. Many smiling staff members, most of them wearing red shoes. One in front has a section of prop yellow brick road.The museum's staff members pose with their red shoes to celebrate the return of the Ruby Slippers.

Erin Blasco manages the museum's social media and blog. She highly recommends this blog post on 10 things you should know about exhibition installation

The Museum extends its thanks to supporters of the Ruby Slippers conservation effort through Kickstarter.

Erin Blasco
Posted Date: 
Monday, April 22, 2019 - 08:30
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Introducing the Band-Aids of the Future

Smithsonian Magazine

Not much has changed in the world of sticky bandages since 1920, when Josephine Dickinson and her husband, Earle, an employee at Johnson & Johnson, stuck gauze to a piece of adhesive tape and invented the Band-Aid. A Hello Kitty top sheet and a little bit of antibiotic ointment on the inside may be the biggest developments.

But now, a group of mechanical engineers at MIT is trying to change things up. They've developed a bandage made from a stretchy, rubbery hydrogel. Embedded with a range of electronics and drug reservoirs, this "smart" dressing can actually monitor a wound, administer drugs and alert a doctor when more medicine is needed.  

First, the team, led by professor Xuanhe Zhao, had to create a hydrogel that behaved like human skin. To accomplish this, they decided that the material, like skin, would have to be predominantly water. In November, Zhao revealed the results of the work—a hydrogel made of a thin web of biopolymers and composed of 90 percent water. 

The material sticks to the metal or glass of electronic devices the way tendons stick to a bone. “Electronics are usually hard and dry, but the human body is soft and wet," Zhao told MIT News. “If you want to put electronics in close contact with the human body, it is highly desirable to make the electronic devices soft and stretchable to fit the environment.” Zhao and his colleagues just published a paper about their hydrogel bandages in the journal Advanced Materials.

To put the hydrogel to use, Zhao and his team ran titanium wire through it to make it conductive. They bonded electronics, such as temperature sensors, to the material, so that the bandage can detect any heat that is indicative of an infection. Then they drilled holes and cut channels in it to distribute medicine, like topical antimicrobials, across the injury. They even put LED lights in the bandage. Attached to the sensors, the LEDs light up when a wound reaches a concerning temperature. Eventually, since it's controlled remotely, the bandage could alert doctors through an app.

The engineers had to make sure it all still worked when it stretched, and that it could keep both rigid electronics, such as chips, and flexible ones, like wires, in place. Zhao is particularly interested in the interface between electronics and the human body, and trying to develop materials that closely mimic how we naturally move. The bandage bends in tricky spots, like on a knee or an elbow.

Zhao’s next goal is to use the material to build probes that can go inside the body and the brain. Neural probes, in particular, are incredibly hard to build, because the brain has a highly sensitive immune response to foreign objects.

“The brain is a bowl of Jell-O,” Zhao told MIT News. “Currently, researchers are trying different soft materials to achieve long-term biocompatibility of neural devices. With collaborators, we are proposing to use robust hydrogel as an ideal material for neural devices, because the hydrogel can be designed to possess similar mechanical and physiological properties as the brain.”

Zhao says they’re not looking at commercialization quite yet. The bandage has not yet obtained FDA approval, but he says some of the earliest applications could be for dressing burn wounds, which need to be covered, monitored and treated.

The Narwhals’ Unicorn-Like Tusk Can Sense Changes in Its Environment

Smithsonian Magazine

Narwhals are sometimes referred to as the unicorns of the sea because of the long, pointed horns that extend from their heads. Male narwhals' tusks can grow up to nine feet long, and as Nadia Drake writes at Wired they are actually modified teeth that protrude out from the corner of their mouth, rather than forehead-centered horns. 

Scientists do not know what purpose the narwhal's tusk serves, exactly. They've speculated that it might be used for skewering enemy animals or for breaking through the icy Arctic waters where the animals live. One team hypothesized that the tusk serves as a sort of sensory organ, Wired describes, and recently decided to investigate that idea.* 

To put their hunch to the test, the researchers devised a "tusk jacket," Drake writes—a sort of plastic hoodie that fit comfortbly over the narwhals' tusks but excluded the outside environment. The team changed the concentration of salt in the water that filled the tusk jacket, which acts as a proxy for temperature (more ice equals colder water with more salt, while less ice means warmer water with less salt). Wired:

He found that narwhal heart rates rose in response to high salt concentrations, presumably because these concentrations normally suggest that the sea is freezing and entrapment is possible. The animals’ heart rates dropped when the tusks were washed with fresh water, suggesting they could detect this change. 

The team only tested the tusks for a response to salt but thinsk the whales might also use their tusks for seeking out prey or finding mates. Why, what would you do with an extra long, sensitive tooth?

*Update: This research was funded partially by Smithsonian Institution and was led by Martin Nweeia, a member of the Smithsonian's Department of Vertebrate Zoology.

The Disappearing Habitats of the Vaux’s Swifts

Smithsonian Magazine

Larry Schwitters, a fit 70-year-old in black Ray-Ban sunglasses, climbed a narrow, 40-foot ladder to the top of an old brick chimney on an elementary school. It was a sunny day in Monroe, Washington, and heat radiated off the flat, tar roof. Schwitters, uncertain whether or not the extension on the ladder was locking securely, jiggled it warily. Schwitters looked vulnerable so high in the air, even rigged to a climbing rope held by a friend. “Larry takes his life into his hands when he does this,” said the man holding the rope, Jim Rettig, president of a nearby Audubon Society chapter. “No, I take my life in your hands,” Schwitters called down.

Schwitters is a retired science teacher and former mountain climber who no longer thrills to heights. But he needed to repair a microphone he had fitted to the top of the chimney along with a video camera. When it’s working correctly, the equipment records the activity of birds called Vaux’s swifts. Like their cousins the chimney swifts, which live in the Eastern United States, these Western birds gather in huge groups inside old brick chimneys. The sounds and images from the equipment stream live over the Internet. The swift is Schwitters’ idée fixe. He spends at least 30 hours a each week on swift-related projects like this one.

No one knows exactly where Vaux’s (pronounced “vauks”) swifts spend the winter, or the details of their migration route. It’s not even known whether they migrate at night, as most birds do. But we do know the birds need chimneys. Schwitters has discovered that this one at Frank Wagner Elementary School might be the most important chimney in the region—more than 26,000 birds have been counted entering it in one evening.

Four years ago, this unused, 1939 chimney was a candidate for demolition as an earthquake hazard. Countless other old swift-sheltering chimneys, obsolete in buildings with modern heating systems, have already been lost to renovations or collapse. Schwitters and a growing band of others want to uncover more of the swifts’ secrets, and in the process stop more of the birds’ chimney stacks from falling.

On a busy night, the birds would be clinging to the bricks on the inside of the chimney in overlapping layers. But today Schwitters saw only one inside the stack. “Well, hello, birdie,” he piped.

Standing on the roof, I found a dead swift, remarkably intact, and scooped it up. Hold a soft, soot-brown Chaetura vauxi in your hand and you’ll feel how light it is—no heavier than a handful of cotton balls. You’ll also get a sense for what kind of flier it might be—the bird is mostly wings, two scimitar-shaped extensions that give loft to a stubby body and short, squared-off tail.

“They’re some of the most aerial of all birds,” says Charles Collins, a swift researcher and professor emeritus at California State University, Long Beach. “If they’re not feeding young, they’re probably on the wing all day.” In the air, they feed on insects and ballooning baby spiders. The birds’ high-flying ways may be one reason we know so little about this species.

The birds gather in huge numbers in the sky in the evening, swooping and whirling together on those elegant wings, then forming a gyre and plunging into the chimney for the night. “There are prettier birds, like the warblers, or bigger birds, like the great blue heron,” says Rettig. “But just to watch the swifts all together, well, it takes my breath away.”

Vaux’s swifts originally roosted and nested not in chimneys but in the hollow trunks and branches of old or dead trees. But those are few and far between on the modern migration route. Looking south from the Wagner School roof, there’s a bald patch on the foothills of the Cascade mountain range, a clear-cut in a spot where swifts might once have slept over. That’s why chimneys like these have become essential habitat.

Swifts are agile in the air, but not on land. They’re in the family Apodidae, a group of birds that can’t perch or walk—they can only cling. Since around the time of World War II, brick chimneys have been lined with metal or other materials to meet modern fire codes, and Vaux’s can’t use them. Chimneys older than that are generally crumbling, and therefore endangered.

The Monroe chimney may have hosted swifts, unnoticed, for years. “People who lived right there didn’t know about it,” Schwitters said. If they did, they thought the birds were some other species. An unidentified wag had even posted a sign on one of the school’s windows: “They’re not bats.”

Audubon members approached Schwitters and asked if he could help make the case for saving the chimney. “Just pulling your car up beside a school with a chimney on it looked pretty easy for this old guy,” he said. So he set to work counting the birds on evenings in spring and fall. His first visit in 2006 wasn’t especially promising—only 1,000 birds. But every night he returned—eventually with other people he’d recruited and trained in the art of counting birds by tens—he saw more. “We discovered that the numbers here dwarfed those at the Chapman School,” a more famous roosting site in Portland. “If this chimney was removed, the birds would have to roost elsewhere.” As he soon learned, there weren’t a lot of other elsewheres.

Schwitters, local Audubon chapters and school officials organized into a group called Vaux’s Happening to begin fund-raising for a hazard assessment and retrofit. They also held their first public event, a Swift’s Night Out. Audubon volunteers showed people what a swift’s wing looks like. Schwitters gave a presentation inside the school auditorium, and near the end of it someone threw open the door at the back of the auditorium and cried, “The swifts are here!” Outside, people gasped and squealed at the bird acrobatics, and cheered as they finally began circling the chimney, and then funneled in.

Schwitters decided to expand his range, calling bird organizations up and down the migration route, seeking more volunteers to look for other chimneys and count their swifts. He used Google Earth to identify likely chimneys in the bird’s range and e-mailed strangers nearby, asking if they’d be willing to go to a chimney some evening and look to see if little birds were gathering around it.

Collins, the swift professor in Long Beach, says the research Schwitters is aggregating is not only good for saving chimneys, it’s also useful science. “On a year to year basis, it’s a way of keeping an eye on whether or not there’s a dramatic decrease that might be an early warning that there’s something going wrong in their collective environment,” he said.

The project to save chimneys has already had several successes. Mark Sylbert, a painter and Hollywood art director who lives in a converted 1918 factory building in Los Angeles, learned about the project through a series of forwarded e-mails. Years ago he had stood with his wife and infant daughter on their fire escape and watched birds flying over another old brick building at sunset. The birds’ high-pitched twittering was often drowned out by city noise, but nothing overshadowed the visual drama as they swirled into a huge brick chimney. “It was so thick with birds it was staggering,” said Sylbert. When he heard about the Vaux’s Happening project Sylbert e-mailed Schwitters, sure that this was the same species. But Sylbert had lost track of the birds with a second kid and busy career. The building the birds had used had been converted to lofts, and the chimney knocked down. Schwitters convinced him to look for another likely chimney.

“To me that was just like a treasure hunt,” Sylbert said. He drove around downtown Los Angeles with his head tilted up at the sky. “It’s not really a safe activity,” he said. “I don’t recommend copying me.”

He found the birds, though, flying over City Hall at sunset. He followed them to the 12-story brick Chester Williams building and got out to watch them. An article about it ended up in the Los Angeles Times, and Jeff Chapman of the Audubon Society in Los Angeles has gone on to organize events for public school kids to come out and see the Chester Williams Vaux’s. Sylbert compares the event to taking his kids on a whale watch expedition. “But you have to have money to go out and whale-watch—this is something that brings itself right into the core of L.A."

Other volunteers have similar stories of finding sites in San Diego, San Francisco and elsewhere along the migration route. But few locations so far have been protected. Out of the 12 biggest roost sites Schwitters has identified, five have been torn down or capped since the study began. Several others, while not under immediate threat, could be torn down at any time.

But not the chimney in Monroe. Last fall, repairs there were finally completed. As it turned out, the stack didn’t need rebuilding, only stabilizing with angle iron, brackets on all four corners of the chimney which extend up its length. There was even money left for a kiosk in front of the school, where the community and Vaux’s watchers can learn more about the birds’ lives. “In fact, the chimney has added value to the school,” said Ken Hoover, superintendent of Monroe public schools.

“I’ve traveled far to watch birds,” said Christopher Adler, a music professor in San Diego who helped find a roost site in a nearby church chimney. “Thailand, Laos, Cambodia. But seeing those 10,000 Vaux’s in one night,” he said. “I’ve really never seen anything like that. Every direction I looked, they were as far as the eyes could see.”

If Larry Schwitters gets his way, more and more people will have that thrill. “We took him on to help save the chimney,” said Mike Blackbird, president of the Pilchuck Audubon society, at a recent celebration of the Monroe chimney win. “He went on to try to save the species.”

Watch the Smithsonian's Age of Humans Symposium

Smithsonian Magazine

Humans have been transforming the planet through agriculture, urbanization, transportation and fossil fuel use, and the rapid changes to Earth’s climate and environments have many scientists arguing that we have entered a new geologic age dubbed the Anthropocene, the Age of Humans. Recognizing the impacts of humanity means we can alter our behaviors and find solutions to create a more resilient and sustainable society.

This one-day symposium, held on October 9 and sponsored by the Smithsonian’s Grand Challenges Consortia, brought together leaders in the fields of climate, health, economics and security to discuss the problems and to offer possible solutions. Speakers include:

  • Admiral Thad Allen, former 23rd Commandant of the USCG and coordinator of the federal response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico
  • James J. Hack, director of the National Center for Computational Science, Oak Ridge National Laboratory
  • Rachel Kyte, group vice president and special envoy for climate change at the World Bank
  • George Luber, epidemiologist and associate director for climate change at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

A summation of the day’s discussion was be provided by Thomas L. Friedman, award-winning author and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times.

Download a schedule of the day's events here. Below are the videos from the event, broken out by theme, and the full video is embedded at the top of the page.

Do you have a question or comment about the symposium? Email the Consortia!

Opening Remarks

Navigating in a Virtual World (Part I)

Navigating in a Virtual World (Part II)

Fit for Purpose: The Global Economy We Need to Live Well in the Anthropocene

Solving Climate Change in 20 Minutes: A Guided Simulation

The Health Consequence of a Changing Climate, Part I

The Health Consequence of a Changing Climate, Part II

Confronting the Increased Complexity in the Interface of the Natural and Built Environment from Katrina to Space Weather

What Mother Nature Teaches About American Foreign and Domestic Policy

Closing Remarks

The History of the Town Hall Debate

Smithsonian Magazine

Here’s one question you didn’t hear Barack Obama or Mitt Romney answer during the 2012 presidential election. “Do you prefer pepperoni or sausage on your pizza?”

The question was the brainchild of Pizza Hut, which promised free pizza for life to any patriot willing to ask the question at the audience-driven presidential town hall debate that year.

The marketing ploy, offered a week before the debate, quickly turned into a PR disaster as people panned the offer. A Gawker headline articulates the general reaction to the pitch: "Want Free Pizza Hut Pizza for Life? Just Make a Mockery of the American Democratic System on Live TV."

At first blush, the corporate stunt might seem entirely inappropriate for a tradition that dates all the way back to 17th-century New England meeting houses. But in a certain way it’s fitting: The modern town hall presidential debate, like its predecessor, was built on informal, populist discourse that invites everyone to the table, even those who perhaps shouldn’t be given the mic.  

The very first town hall in the United States was established in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1633. Per the town’s court records, every Monday at the sound of an 8 a.m. bell, townspeople held a meeting to settle and establish “such orders as may tend to the generall good as aforesayd.” The decisions made at these meetings were honored as law and “every man to be bound thereby, without gaynesaying or resistance.”

The practice soon spread throughout New England as an effective means for citizens to decide on important issues of the day. Town hall meetings gave locals a way to have their say in local affairs. The informal, majority-rules forum became a foundation of early American democracy and they are still used throughout the country today. The longest continuously functioning one, held in Pelham, Massachusetts, has been run out of a two-story wooden structure since 1743.

Early presidential hopefuls didn’t participate in town halls. They didn’t even openly campaign for votes. Rather, in the spirit of George Washington, elected officials were supposed to simply present themselves as civil servants. On-the-sly politicking and newspaper editorials were expected to do the campaign work for them—no debates needed.

Over time, this sentiment changed. When Abraham Lincoln made a run for Stephen Douglas’ senate seat, he persuaded the senator to agree to a series of debates in 1858—the first electoral debate of note in the country. Decades later, the advent of new technologies like radio and television offered even more ways for candidates to use the debate format to make an impression on would-be voters.

However, these debates were more stylistically formal and were moderated only by established journalists from established news outlets. But with each change came new risk and new reward—as with the famous first televised general election debate in 1960, in which John F. Kennedy’s camera-ready looks helped the Democratic senator score a win against Vice President Richard Nixon, a coup that eventually pushed him all the way to the Oval Office.

Since the 1920s, all presidential debates had been moderated by the League of Women Voters, but in the years after Nixon-Kennedy, campaigns have sought to exert more control, ideally to present their candidates in a more favorable light. From that emerged a secret, backdoor memo in the 1980s crafted by Republican and Democrats to give their candidates more leverage. Among their suggestions were to ban follow-up questions from moderators and an ability to seed the audience with supporters.

When the League caught wind that the parties were trying to strong-arm the debate format, it issued a searing statement from its president, Nancy M. Neuman.

"On the threshold of a new millennium, this country remains the brightest hope for all who cherish free speech and open debate," Neuman wrote. "Americans deserve to see and hear the men who would be president face each other in a debate on the hard and complex issues critical to our progress into the next century."

She challenged the candidates, Vice President George H.W. Bush and Governor Michael Dukakis, to "rise above your handlers and agree to join us in presenting the fair and full discussion the American public expects of a League of Women Voters debate."

The League ultimately withdrew its sponsorship. In its place, the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates was established. It proved more open to changes in the once-honored debate format.

That next presidential season, Arkansas governor Bill Clinton would put the new committee to the test. A skilled public speaker who prided himself on his ability to engage with crowds, Clinton had successfully used town hall forums, where he spoke one-on-one with voters, to his advantage in the primaries. Seeing a town hall debate as an easy way to shine in the general election, his campaign reached out to see if President Bush would be open to a change.

“Boy, I really wanted that, because I'd done a lot of town meetings,” Clinton later told PBSNewshour anchor Jim Lehrer.

The incumbent president initially seemed against the idea. As the president told Bernard Shaw on CNN, "I thought when you and others asked tough questions at the 1988 debates, it livened things up. I saw nothing wrong with the former format.”

But his campaign agreed to it during a phone call with Clinton. As Northeastern University journalism professor Alan Schroeder points out in his book on the perils of the presidential campaign trail, the Bush team believed that since the debate was being held in conservative Richmond, Virginia, undecided voters would be impressed enough by a chance to speak to the president that they wouldn’t ask him hard questions. Bush himself had fared well in small groups in the past, even hosting a successful “Ask George Bush” forum during his own campaign, which was analogous to Clinton’s own forums. The new Commission on Presidential Debates put the forum in motion and the town hall format for presidential debates was born.

Despite the country’s historic embrace of  town halls, allowing everyday voters to question the candidates on a national stage revamped the original model and gave it a turn-of-the-21th-century twist. PARADE magazine called it “one more populist touch in a campaign marked by bus tours, talk shows and MTV—and capped by huge voter turnout.”

The new format meant that candidates couldn’t easily stick to their talking points and instead had to react to questions culled from the crowd. It also created a way for the public to see how candidates performed in a more informal environment. Clinton, for one, was ready: His practiced Southern charm played to his advantage, helping him regain an edge from independent candidate H. Ross Perot, who was considered the winner of the first, more formal, debate.

“Since the town hall format was a novelty it received far more attention than the other more conventional debates,” wrote University of Maryland professor Kathleen E. Kendall in her book on presidential candidates and the media. “Clinton was able to generate substantial political capital because he could showcase his relational style in the most highly publicized and popular of the debates.”

That October, 209 undecided voters were selected by the Gallup Organization to serve as the studio audience for the 90-minute debate. Carole Simpson of ABC News served as moderator. When she came on stage, she commented first on the novelty of the night: “Tonight's program is unlike any other presidential debate in history—we're making history now and it's pretty exciting.”

Though Bush got some barbs in, like saying the Arkansas governor’s flip-flopping would turn the “White House into the Waffle House,” he was criticized for looking too formal, staying behind his lectern for the debate, and looking at his watch. Visuals meant everything, as Clinton knew.

As one paper published in the Journal of Communication in 2007 argues, “While the Bush team simply practiced verbal arguments and rebuttals leading up to the town hall debate, Bill Clinton’s staff also laid out a grid, complete with fake cameras and doubles for his opponents and the audience, to train their candidate to utilize space effectively.”

That meant whenever the camera was on him, Clinton was ready and posed accordingly. The future president also knew how to keep Bush and Perot in the camera’s view so that they might be caught with “bad facial expressions."

Bush would later express his frustration with how the town hall had gone to Lehrer: “You look at your watch and they say that he shouldn't had any business running for president. He's bored. He's out of this thing, he's not with it and we need change. It took a little incident like that to show that I was you know out of it. They made a huge thing out of that. Now, was I glad when the damn thing was over. Yeah. And maybe that's why I was looking at it, only 10 more minutes of this crap, I mean."

But Bush took arguably more heat for being unable to field a question from one of the voters in the audience. When Marisa Hall Summers asked how the candidates had been personally affected by America's economic downturn, Bush was perceived as being out of touch, saying, “it has a lot to do with interest rates.”

According to a Times Mirror Center poll conducted at the end of October 1992, the debate was a success. Forty-six percent of the public preferred that candidates be questioned by voters compared to 28 percent who preferred to stick with a single-moderator format. Simpson chalked up the town hall’s success to its popular appeal. “I think voters who are used to the overabundance of talk shows want to see those people reacting with others like them,” she said. “I think they want that connectedness.”

Since 1992, the town hall format has continued to evolve. In 2008, it included several questions submitted online for the first time. The “pepperoni or cheese” question was actually introduced there first, but because it wasn't asked, Pizza Hut ended up making its bold promise the following election cycle.  

This Sunday, for the first time ever, a town hall debate will be considering the top 30 questions submitted and selected by viewers at Currently leading with more than 42,000 votes is a question asked by Richard M. from California: “Would you support requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales?

The town hall debate is now seen as part of the American political tradition. And in a way, it is—a modern innovation cribbed from a much older way to include everyday people in the political process.

“It’s the democratic process in its most amiable state: earnest Americans asking serious questions about the issues,” a New York Times opinion piece wrote in 2004.

Perhaps the questions aren’t always so earnest. But they likely weren’t back in 1633 either—unless colonists needed to decide which kind of pizza to order. 

The Surprising Raucous Home Life of the Madisons

Smithsonian Magazine

She looked like royalty, or so thought many guests at the sight of Dolley Madison in her velvet inaugural gown and velvet and white satin turban with towering bird-of-paradise feathers. In full naval regalia, the head of the Navy Yard led her into the hall at Long’s Hotel, followed by her husband (the new president) and her sister Anna.

Taller, broader and far more conspicuous than her husband, Dolley set to her evening’s task of charming the assembled throng. Always ready with a smile and a warm greeting, Dolley steered conversations with a steady hand, taking special care to set at ease those who appeared most uncomfortable.

For husband James, the event was just one more social occasion on which his wife would shine while he stiffly observed the proprieties. Those who met him at such gatherings invariably thought him a cold fish. One congressional wife dismissed James as a “gloomy, stiff creature . . . who has nothing engaging or even bearable in his manners – the most unsociable creature in existence.” 


Madison's Gift: Five Partnerships That Built America

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Madison’s official portraits reinforce the sober image. In earlier paintings, Madison gazes levelly out of the canvas, virtually daring the viewer to try to make him crack a grin. As Madison aged, the years shaped his face into harsh crags and furrows, creating a visage that became forbidding.


Dolley’s portraits, in contrast, show a woman with merry eyes who is suppressing a laugh. That impish look shines through the only surviving photograph of her, a daguerreotype taken at age 80, in the last year of her life.

Yet when it comes to the Madisons’ temperament, history conceals far more than it reveals. With family and close friends, they were as fun-loving a couple – even rowdy – as ever occupied the White House.

Their life together began with a passionate courtship by a man who led the Republican members of Congress in 1794. Though he did not marry until past 40, James’ interest in the opposite sex was consistent. He pursued several women in his bachelor days, ranging from a teenager half his age (who jilted him) to a wealthy widow of a Tory merchant.

Then, on a street in Philadelphia, he saw Dolley Todd, a recent widow. He flashed into action, promptly determining who she was and that his college friend, Aaron Burr, rented a room from Dolley’s mother. Burr agreed to introduce Madison to the young widow.

After a few weeks of avid courting, James recruited Dolley’s cousin to write to Dolley on his behalf. In a note that he approved “with sparkling eyes,” the cousin wrote that James “thinks so much of you in the day that he has lost his tongue, at night he dreams of you and starts in his sleep calling on you to relieve his flame for he burns to such an excess that he will be shortly consumed.”

Marriage ended neither their romance nor James’ stylized coquetry. Nearly ten years later, he sent his love to Dolley in a letter, adding “a little smack” for one of their friends, “who has a sweet lip, though I fear a sour face for me.” A note from that friend, he wrote, “makes my mouth water.” Another time he sent a kiss to the same woman and told Dolley to “accept a thousand for yourself.” After Dolley’s sister Lucy moved out of the White House, she reminded Dolley how “when he kisses you—he was always so fearful of making my mouth water.

The future president was not only a romantic, but a high-spirited one.

Start with the wine, which James usually did. One dinner guest reported that James spent the hour after the meal passing around different vintages “of no mean quality.” Through most mealtimes, he maintained a steady stream of anecdotes and stories.

Friends relished his wicked sense of humor. His conversation, one niece recalled, moved “from brilliant mirth through to brilliant mirth.” A British diplomat found him a “jovial and good-humored companion.” Another source called James “an incessant humorist” who “set his table guests daily into roars of laughter over his stories and whimsical ways of telling them.”

Alas, the surviving samples of Madisonian humor incline more towards whimsy than hilarity. Dolley, however, was known more for warm cheer and high spirits than for incisive wit. She was, a niece recalled after her death, “a foe to dullness.”

Indeed, the Madison household rarely resembled the quiet, contemplative environment that a great thinker and leader might crave. At the White House and at Montpelier, James’ Virginia plantation, young relations and friends’ children usually overran the Madisons. The headcount at the dinner table often exceeded 20, including Dolley’s son from her first marriage, Payne Todd.

Two of Dolley’s sisters, Lucy and Anna lived with them for periods that stretched for years, along with their eight children. Dolley’s brother settled near Montpelier with his eight offspring, as did several of James’ siblings. The nieces, nephews and other kin (over 50 between James and Dolley) were legion. Then came James’ relations in central Virginia’s Orange County and Dolley’s ten cousins, two of whom served as James’ aides as president.

At Montpelier and the White House, the constant presence of younger generations meant that the patriarch and matriarch never took themselves too seriously. Upon receiving stockings too small for her generous proportions, she reported that “the hose will not fit even my darling little husband.” When Dolley challenged a young girl to a footrace, she assured her that “Madison and I often run races here.” A house guest reported that the former first couple, “sometimes romp and tease each other like two children.”

The guest added that Dolley, who was “stronger as well as larger than he,” sometimes “could – and did – seize his hands, draw him upon her back, and go round the room with him.” We are left to imagine the accompanying shrieks and laughter.

Take another look at those portraits of the Madisons. Behind the solemn expressions, perhaps you can make out the joking, passionate man and his fun-loving wife.

Does the Future Hold the Prospect of Outsourcing the Human Brain?

Smithsonian Magazine

Inveterate inventor and Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun, the man behind Google Glass, the self-driving car and recipient of Smithsonian magazine's 2012 Ingenuity Award will add yet another Smithsonian medal to his collection this week.

The German-born Thrun, 48, will receive the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal Thursday June 11, during a naturalization ceremony that welcomes 15 new citizens, recognizing his achievements in business through invention and innovation as well as commitment to education. A part time researcher at Stanford, he left Google in 2014, where he was a vice president and fellow, after creating Udacity, an online education company in 2012.

Thrun’s association with the Smithsonian includes demonstrating the robotic tour guide Minerva in the National Museum of American History in 1998 and donating course maps, helmets and equipment after his Stanford team propelled the self-driving car Stanley to cross the finish line and win the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge. The car is currently on view at the National Air and Space Museum in the exhibition, "Time and Navigation."

We talked to him before his award presentation, when he was still out in Silicon Valley, multi-tasking as usual: riding an electric bike around as he did the interview. It became a kind of TED talk on wheels; we imagined a headset microphone attached to a futuristic helmet as he whizzed around corners, taking about the point of invention, amazing things on the horizon and the best digital invention ever, which happens to be celebrating its 560th anniversary in 2015.

We edited our conversation for clarity and to minimize the occasional wind gust.

This award will be given at a naturalization ceremony. When did you become a U.S. citizen?

I’m a dual citizen—U.S. and Germany. It happened about 12 years ago.

I wanted to participate in the political responsibilities of an American citizen. I wanted to vote. I wanted to be a full member of the American community. I made America my home country. It’s my identity in many ways. So the dual citizenship was a good step. Luckily I was able to retain my German citizenship, but I’m a big believer in America and its values. A big benefit of it was to have a chance to build a career and raise a family.

What drew you here to live 20 years ago?

For me, what stands out in the United States is the willingness to be able to ask any question and to break all the rules. Sometimes that’s seen negatively. But the heritage of this country, and its people, goes back to the [making of] a new country, and wanting to establish a better system. In doing so, almost everything had to be reinvented. That spirit continues to the present day, especially in Silicon Valley, and its ability to bypass old rules and find better, and often more efficient, ways to do things. That was important to me. That’s something that’s harder to do in Europe, because it’s much more conservative, and made up of much older countries, and they just don’t question.

Sebastian Thrun is a 2015 recipient of the James Smithson Bicentennial Award. (NMAH/SI)

What was Silicon Valley like when you first got there?  

It was a big revelation for me. I had been an academic all my life. As academics, you tend to believe the smartest people are in academia. But I found in Silicon Valley, more than in any other place, that there’s an enormous brain trust among the Steve Jobses and Larry Pages in the world. And the perspective on how to impact an idea is much more complete than it would be at any other institution. It’s something I couldn’t get anywhere else.

Did you bring your ideas there or did you develop them when you got there?

I think what I most learned at Silicon Valley was the idea of thinking, of how to ask the right questions, how to question the right assumptions, the right authority. The more I get into a different style of thinking, a different style of understanding, the easier it becomes to look at existing things and ask the important question: Could we do that better?

For example, my current company regards the question could pay education be organized better. Better meaning not just accessible, but also a higher quality, and the answer is absolutely yes. It sometimes surprises me how few people see it the same way when it’s so obvious to me.

What keeps people from thinking about old practices in new ways?

I think we get raised in a certain way and we take a lot of things for granted. A lot of it is just tradition. Sometimes you confuse tradition with the best solution. And tradition was often the best solution for its time. But as society progresses and technology progresses, people live different lifestyles, and what might have been a great solution yesterday might not be a great solution tomorrow.

Stanley, an autonomous vehicle that won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, is on view in the "Time and Navigation" exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. (Mark Avino, National Air and Space Museum)

You are known for your work at Google X, heading the team that developed Google Glass and the self-driving car. Were there approaches to each of those inventions that were common?

In all of these approaches, we had a vision of making aspects of life better. So in the self driving car, they were basically to make the car safe; so it wouldn’t collide any more, killing people as a result.The Google Glass was a device that would allow me to seamlessly benefit from my visual connections while still living my full life—while everyone else is looking down on their smartphones.

With Project Iris [which used contact lenses to detect glucose deficiency], we had this vision that we could manage glucose without stabbing your finger and looking at your blood. We had a project where we tried to cure cancer, which is ongoing, that finds certain kinds of cancer very curable. In all of these things they were cases where if you could just do it people’s lives would be better.

In the end, the question wasn’t about technology. In all these situations, we needed to convince ourselves that if you could invent this, people’s lives would be better and that it was completely doable. It’s really about execution and working together. And we’re still working on it.

Do you consider your job just creating devices, or do you need to bring people around to use them as well?

I see my job as really making it great. And great means, yes, people using it. For me the user is an important element in the cycle of innovation. Edison has been quoted saying, “I have not failed 10,000 times. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”

For me, to produce something like Udacity, it takes 2,000 iterations before we get it right. And the customer feedback is really important.

In the self-driving car, we haven’t got to the point of customer feedback. All we have now is that it would be a wildly successful product if it was safe—it would be wildly unsuccessful if it was unsafe. So we’ve been pushing on the safety part. The tests we’ve been doing with people, they all say that they love the technology, because it frees them up to do something else. So I think the risk of a bad fit is lower. But I think the price is too expensive. With the team I would have pushed really hard to get the first version really great. So for me the ultimate impact does not materialize when we make the invention, it materializes when we change peoples’ lives. The thing itself is not that interesting; it has to change people’s lives. That’s the motivation for me.

You’ve seen that with these inventions?

Certainly in education, it’s been changing people’s lives. Google Glass is at a young age, and many of the projects are at an early stage and will take some time. With Google Glass, the concept we put out was the first version in a big tent. It kind of failed. I happily say that because the intended use was to wear it all day. And I blame myself, because it was my ambition to build a device that you would use all day. And the better use may be for specific activities like sports. That will cause a redesign, an iteration of sunglasses and so on. But the first iteration was a very valuable iteration, and the only way to learn this.  

Of the rest, Udacity is certainly changing lives because people are getting jobs from it and have sent these raving letters—it’s kind of amazing.

What made you leave Google and go into education full-time?

I feel if you want to massively improve people’s lives, there’s nothing better you can do than education right now. Because education is the one thing that empowers people to empower themselves.

So a self-driving car saves people a couple hours a day which is a big deal. But education empowers people to build the next self-driving car, which is a bigger deal. There’s a saying, you give a man a fish and you feed him for one night, you teach a man to fish and he’s fed for the rest of his life.

The second thing about education is that it’s so utterly broken, it’s so badly mismanaged, and it’s broken in ways people don’t understand. If you look what’s happening today at Udacity, the vast majority of people we teach are people who would never have a chance at the existing education system, because it’s too exclusive, it’s too expensive, it’s too regional, and often too outdated.  

There’s a huge market of people willing to undergo education if you just make it more accessible. With the public debate of how you would replace higher education, the bigger issue, if you think about it, is bringing education to everybody. If it succeeded it could literally be the most important company ever built. And that’s very exciting to me.

In 1998, the robot "Minerva," developed by Sebastian Thrun and his team, took visitors on tours of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. (Richard Strauss, NMAH)

How is that achieved?

The methodology is very simple. It is very much the classic Silicon Valley methodology, which is to iterate: build a system that is a minimal system of what you want to do, understanding it’s the minimum system, not very good. Bring it out to the people. See how it performs. Make a list of the top 10 things that people want fixed and fix them. Some of the things might not be obvious, you don’t know always exactly what bothers people. But irrespective, if you iterate, you learn about every component of what you do, and you’re not in danger of defending something no one wants.

What is your dream for Udacity?

If I could double the world’s GDP, it would be very gratifying to me, measuring it not by the company itself but by the impact it would have. We are launching an education system that Google has undersigned, a joint education for entrepreneurship. It’s a niche to some extent, but if you bring this to the Middle East, if you bring this to Africa, if you bring this to Bangladesh, to developing countries, to China and India, I think it can have a huge impact on their ability to participate constructively in the creation of wealth and prosperity. Specifically the Middle East, at this point, suffers from the fact there is no path for young people to participate constructively, so some of those, as a result, may choose other paths, like terrorism.

What are the greatest obstacles of reaching that goal?

Where should I start? Obviously we are iterating the student experience, and in some courses we managed to get the finishing rate from about 2 percent to over 90 percent. And that was really hard work to make it really good. So think about it as a car that in the beginning drives about 10 mph, but with relentless engineering you get it to about 100 mph. That’s the product quality. The quality of the experience. The second one, honestly, is that education is such a slow growing field, so there is a trust element. Like, do you trust a new player? And to some extent education is owned by the degree-granting universities that have an efficient delivery model. So to gain the trust of our students means we’ll be placing them in jobs, showing the job records, to show how the teaching really empowers them. That will bring new students, but that’s going to take some time.

Eventually, it will take broadening the course catalog. We work with computer science and software stuff, but not everyone wants to be a software engineer.

Watch this video in the original article

Beyond education, what other innovations do you see on the horizon?

I have a team at Stanford, for example, that looks into cancer, and we have some favorable results right now. We’re pushing really hard. Effectively, it’s the following—in medicine, the dominant paradigm for diagnostics, in most cases, is you’re being bothered by something. You seek the advice of a doctor, who diagnoses you and then prescribes his treatment. That works well with diseases where there are symptoms, but for non-symptomatic diseases like pancreatic cancer, liver cancer, stomach cancer and certain skin cancers, often what happens with those when finally a symptom occurs, is that it’s way past your chances for healing.

In pancreatic cancer for example, it may have started so small, they didn’t see anything. And only when it grew very large and spread, it caused a secondary situation, maybe some displacement of bones or whatever and then pain is what you feel. Or your liver is falling apart and your face turns yellow, which is a common diagnosis for pancreatic cancer. So I model on diagnostic tools that could monitor you life-long, without the initiative of a doctor, so stuff you could see every day, and measure every single day. It turns out there are a lot of signals in our environment that you could measure every single day.

We know a way we could take a full heart exam every time we touch a steering wheel with both hands. It would eliminate the need for the EKG. Why don’t we measure the diameters of ankles of aging people to see if the heart has sufficient capacity to push the fluids up, which is very indicative of a certain type of congestive heart disease.

And then we can go farther. I think we’ll outsource the human brain. One vision is: can we duplicate everything one person has learned? I believe we can. I don’t see why not. If you’re able to predict what a person does, you might be able to put it in a box. If you memorize everything a person has ever seen, you wouldn’t need old memories any more. You’d remember every face, every phone number, but you could also share memories. If you like this conversation and I wanted to share this conversation with somebody else, you wouldn’t have to ask the same questions again.

These are the kind of things people fear from the future: Outsourcing the brain, or having the government or outside agency be able to tap into the brain.

The biggest invention of modern time is the book. The book is a digital medium, book text is written in a different form and replicable. What it really does is it allows us to replicate cultural information, scientific technology and information out of the human brain. Before, it was person-to-person, it was very solitary, teaching mouth to mouth; now we’re able to rapidly replicate the scale of certain information. Yes, the church was scared about this and did whatever it could to supress this education and knowledge because the church teachings were inconsistent at the time with knowledge. Look what this was. If this was the source of all innovation, all scientific discoveries of all social advances of all globalization of language and so on. Without it, further advances would not be possible.

If everything you know had to be told to you by somebody, you wouldn’t know very much. We wouldn’t know how to write, or how to read or all these things. Take it a step further. Why not go into the next step of the evolution? It’s cheaper to produce and disseminate now. We can send a written text, send a personal video. The power is unbelievable.

Let’s go a step further and link the individual experiences and make them digitally transportable. What comes out of this is incomprehensible. But it’s going to be amazing. You’re going to be able to take everyone’s personal experience and put it online.

Wow. You’re thinking big.

Well, I was going to say that’s what I’m paid for. But I’m not paid very well.

Does that matter to you?

I make enough money. I have a house and I have food and clothing. So I’m actually fine. This is not about money, this is really about changing the world.

It’s interesting. People complain about the rich and poor divide. It’s crazy, no doubt about it. But what gets me is that today, a billionaire or head of state on their smartphone has the same direct access to information as a homeless person has on a smartphone, or a person in Bangladesh or Papua New Guinea.

So the difference in actual living comfort between the rich and poor is decreasing, compared to like a thousand years ago, when rich people were able to write and communicate and poor people couldn’t get food because they didn’t have any supplies.

So we’ve not only lifted up the top, we’ve lifted up the bottom. Now we need ways to make everything free. Like transportation will be free, education would be free, or nominally free. Food is basically free today, for the most part, compared to what it used to be. So as a society we’re just going to be abandoning stuff.

We live in this era where a lot of things are available to a lot of people and that’s exciting because it means more people have a chance.

Myself, a thousand years ago, would have been born a farmer and stayed a farmer and never changed my education level. Today the sky is the limit. If you want to go into science, you can become a brilliant scientist. What does that mean in a few years, when basically everything is free, and by virtue of having your brain outsourced, all of a sudden you’re super smart, and you can use your ability to create a better potential than you use today.

On June 11 at 2:30 p.m., Thrun will be a participant in a global summit, entitled "The Internet Age: Founders to Future," with Mitchell Baker, David Farber and Vint Cerf at the National Museum of American History's Warner Bros. Theater. The panel will discuss the innovations that lead to the Internet Age and provide perspectives on the future challenges and opportunities. The event will be webcast live here and here.

An Artist Imagines the Techno-Evolved Creatures of the Future

Smithsonian Magazine

Take a stroll through French artist Vincent Fournier's gallery of animal photographs, and you're likely to come across some creatures you've never seen before. Like, for instance, a jellyfish that is capable of electronically transmitting data across the Abyssal depths of the ocean. Or, perhaps, a scorpion that can perform semi-automated surgery on humans.

"These creatures come from the future—an imagined future, based loosely on current research on synthetic biology and genetic engineering," says Fournier, of his project Post-Natural History, a series of digitally-altered photos of animals that do not yet exist. "The idea is that these are living species, reprogrammed by mankind to better fit our environment as well as to adapt to new human desires."

Aurelia exiens, a jellyfish adapted to transmitting data across the ocean floor

Fournier, who's previously worked on photography projects involving robots and space technology, got the idea for Post-Natural History while browsing the specimen collections of the Muséum National d'Histoires Naturelles, in Paris.

"I met a specialist in evolutionary genetics, and we discussed the possibilities of how living species could evolve according to technologies and the changing environment," he says. "And so I became interested in the idea of exaggerating the present in order to create speculative fiction."

Oryctes transmissionis, an insect with GPS technology that allows continuous tracking

Each of the creations began with Fournier photographing a taxidermically prepared specimen from an actual living species. Then, working with specialists at a 3D imaging laboratory in Brussels, he added fictional adaptations to them, embellishing the creatures with features such as an antenna that transmits GPS data (for the beetle above) or metal legs that can resist extreme temperatures (for the ibis below).

Subtlety is the key. "I didn't want the transformations to be overstated, nothing spectacular," Fournier says. "It could be a gesture, a texture, a detail. Thus, the viewer is not certain whether these species are real or not, or even when and how they were made."

Ibis temperatio, a bird with metal legs for drought and frost resistance

The adaptations, Fournier imagines, result from the marriage of two emerging scientific fields: synthetic biology, which involves the creation of entirely artificial biological systems, and genetic engineering, which involves manipulating an existing organism's DNA.

Some of these imagined creatures seem to exist in order to advance human interests—the fish below, for instance, which can serve as a remotely controlled military drone—while others have been engineered to survive in a hotter, more extreme climate of the future.

Scorpius exocoetidae, a fish adapted to serve as a "shoot and scoot soldier drone"

Fournier freely admits that his creations aren't the most likely human-engineered species to arise in the future.

"My project is more about questioning the frontier between the living and the artificial in an aesthetic way," he says. "It is the imaginary and fantasy side of science that I am interested in, its fictional and extraordinary potential."

Entimus jumpis, a highly-adaptable jumping insect with spring-loaded legs

Fournier likens the creations to the items in Renaissance-era "Cabinets of curiosities," which contained extraordinary specimens and artifacts brought back from faraway lands. "It's like a cabinet of curiosity, but with a different approach: The journey goes into time, rather than space," he says.

Chloromgonfus detectis, a dragonfly that can detect volatile pollutants

To heighten the unnerving sense of realism of these imagined species, Fournier presented them in the style of a classical encyclopedic illustration, complete with scientific names.

"They have the very strange beauty of things that are both familiar and strange at the same time," he says. "It is usually at the second glance that you realize that things are not what you think they are."

Cyanea machina, a jellyfish drone that self-activates at temperatures above 30°C to transport freshwater from rivers to dry remote agricultural areas

Explore the High Fashion of Exploration

Smithsonian Magazine

Back when American explorers Frederick Cook and Robert Peary were racing to reach the North Pole, the men smartly studied the ways that the native Inuit people survived the harsh cold so they wouldn't end up like the failed expeditions of their predecessors. One tool quickly adapted by the men was a warm, waterproof article of clothing with a fur-lined hood called an anorak or a parka. The clothing has since been embraced by skiers and soldiers alike and has become a staple of cold-weather fashion in cities far from the Arctic (last year the New York Post even ironically proclaimed a $4,000 Italian parka "the summer's hottest coat").

The innovative coat is one example of how clothing worn and observed by voyagers in extreme environments has made its way onto the runway, writes Laird Borrelli-Persson of Vogue. Now, a new exhibit, "Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme" at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology is highlighting this rich history by considering how clothing and materials inspired or designed for exploration has been adopted by the fashion industry.

Take the iconic safari outfit. With its lightweight, light-colored fabric that keeps you cool even in intense heat, it was perfect for British soldiers in the empire's various desert and tropical colonies. Adopted by wealthy travelers and immortalized in films like Out of Africa, the tan colors and loose, draping lines of the outfits later turned heads on the runway in designer Yves Saint-Laurent's line.

The voluminous down jacket follows a similar narrative. Patented by sportsman Eddie Bauer in 1940, it was designed to be warm, yet breathable for his mountain-climbing adventures, notes Rosemary Feitelberg for WWD. Decades later, the jacket hit mainstream popularity after being embraced by the hip-hop movement in the 1990s, which dubbed them "puffers."

This is the first major exhibition to explore how designers draw inspiration by the clothing that outfits people in extreme environments, according to the press release, and yes, it also includes a tribute to the shiny spacesuits and relentless optimism of the Space Age. After all, the final frontier of extreme climates did inspire a whole slew of fashion trends.

"Expedition: Fashion from the Extreme" is on view until January 6.

The Mad Dash to Figure Out the Fate of Peatlands

Smithsonian Magazine

With every step he took, Jon Nichols’ boots squelched on the ground beneath him. He recorded his surroundings on a grainy cellphone video, and despite the damp, gray day, Alaska’s Chugach Mountains still provided a stunning backdrop to the tall spruces and low-growing scruff at his feet. He and two colleagues wound their way along the edges of Corser Bog, a damp patch of earth 10 miles due east of Cordova, Alaska, a lonely dot on the map not far from where the Exxon-Valdez oil tanker ran aground in 1989.

“On we trudge,” Nichols said, “through the muskeg meander.”

Muskeg is another name for the peat bogs he studies, and Nichols was slogging through the muck that day in 2010 in pursuit of core samples to learn how the 12,000-year-old bog formed. As a paleoecologist and peat researcher with Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Nichols still works to understand how peat originated and how it might form—or decay—in the future.

Second only to the oceans in the amount of atmospheric carbon they store, peat bogs are integral to the Earth’s carbon cycle. Most peat started forming after the last ice age, roughly 12,000 years ago, and for millennia, they’ve been important carbon reservoirs. Now, though, with a warming planet and new weather patterns, the future of peat bogs has been called into question, including how fast they might start releasing all their stored carbon in the form of carbon dioxide.

About three percent of the planet's terrestrial surface is given over to peatlands, according to current estimates. Yet, despite the importance of peat in the Earth's carbon cycle, scientists are still filling in basic details about these habitats, including where they are, how deep they go and how much carbon they hold.

The largest tracts of peat exist in cold, perpetually damp places like Alaska, northern Europe and Siberia. But substantial deposits have also been found in southern Africa, Argentina, Brazil and Southeast Asia. Until the early 20th century, scientists thought that the tropics were too warm—and fallen plant material consumed too quickly by insects and microbes—to harbor peatlands.

Scientists keep finding them, though. Researchers discovered a peat swamp the size of England in the Congo River basin in 2014. And another 2014 study described a 13,500 square mile peatland on one of the Amazon river's tributaries in Peru that holds an estimated 3.4 billion tons of carbon.

Peat bogs, another term for peatlands, are wet, highly acidic and nearly devoid of oxygen. These conditions mean decomposition slows to a crawl. Plant, animal and human remains that fall into peatlands can lay perfectly preserved for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The carbon contained in these once-living organisms is trapped, slowly buried and sequestered away from the atmosphere over millennia.

But what would happen if these carbon reserves were obliterated? It's an urgent puzzle scientists must now confront even though they're just beginning to answer questions about peat's abundance and distribution.

“They’re key areas for carbon storage,” says Marcel Silvius, a climate-smart land-use specialist with Wetlands International. “If we treat them badly, drain them and dig them up, they become major carbon chimneys.”

Ticking Time Bombs?

In Alaska, as well as across most of the northern latitudes, melting permafrost and shifting rainfall patterns threaten peat bogs. But in the tropics, a different kind of rapidly evolving—and unintended—experiment is already underway.

If all the carbon in the world’s peatlands were to suddenly vaporize, roughly 550 to 650 billion tons of carbon dioxide would pour back into the atmosphere—about twice the volume that’s been added since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Given that peatlands contain between 15 to 30 percent of the world’s carbon stores, their potential for suddenly warming the globe can hardly be understated.

“Because of their constant drawdown of carbon dioxide, [peatlands] are actually cooling the climate,” says René Dommain, a tropical peat expert with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. If peatlands stopped storing carbon dioxide, there's no telling what the long-term environmental impacts would be.

The total, simultaneous destruction of the world’s peatlands is unlikely. But the 14 percent of the world’s peat carbon stock—about 71 billion tons of carbon—stored in the tropical peatlands of Southeast Asia do stand poised on a precipice.

In Malaysia and Indonesia, peat deposits exist beneath thickly wooded lowland forests that have steadily been cleared and drained for the last several decades for agriculture. As trees are removed and peatlands dry out, the deposits start to release carbon in a couple of different ways.

When peat is exposed to air, it begins to decompose, which releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Peat can also wash away along the man-made channels that drain the water, carrying its carbon stores far downstream. Dry peat readily ignites too, often burning uncontrollably or smoldering deep within a deposit's layers like a coal seam fire. These recurring fires pump ash and other particulates into the air, creating public health concerns like respiratory issues and spurring evacuations across the areas where they occur.

As of 2010, 20 percent of the peat swamp forests on the Malaysian peninsula and the islands of Sumatra and Borneo had been cleared for African oil palm plantations or to grow acacia (which is used to produce pulp for paper and other wood products.) Outside of Papua New Guinea, which holds 12 to 14 million acres of pristine peat forest, only 12 million acres of peat swamp forest remain in the Indonesian archipelago.

At the current rate of destruction, the remaining forests outside of Brunei, where the forests are well preserved, will be completely eradicated by 2030, says Dommain.

Under ideal conditions, he says, intact tropical peatlands can store up to a ton of carbon dioxide per acre per year. But because of destructive agricultural practices and new fluctuations in weather patterns, Southeast Asia's peatlands lose about 22 to 31 tons of carbon dioxide per acre each year. That’s more than 20 times what these areas soak up annually.

Over the last two decades, carbon dioxide emissions from drained and degraded peat swamp forests in Malaysia and Indonesia more than doubled, going from 240 million tons in 1990 to 570 million tons in 2010, Dommain says. He plans to publish this analysis in a book later this year.

Pinpointing Hidden Caches

Much of the uncertainty in peat research stems from the fact that scientists don't know the full extent of the planet’s peat reserves. Peatlands are relatively small, widely scattered and hard to find. So for most of the early 20th century, much of what was known about peat reserves around the world came from the written observations of naturalist-explorers who trekked through remote areas describing new landscapes and discovering unknown species.

Since then, new satellite images and analyses, data on standing surface water, re-examination of old maps and more scientific expeditions have filled in a lot of the gaps in our knowledge of where peatlands exist. But there's still a lot left to learn.

Based on a patchwork of data cobbled together from a lot of different sources, scientists think they have good estimates of how much peat is out there, says Columbia’s Nichols. But a lot of our knowledge about the location of peatlands is based on extrapolation, he explains, and only a limited amount of those estimates have been verified by ground-based assessments.

“How much peat there is is a big question we’re still trying to get a handle on,” Nichols says.

Part of the problem is geography. Peat stores tend to be impossibly remote, hostile places. Alaska's Corser Bog, for example, is accessible only by plane or boat. In northern latitudes, humans simply haven't ventured in any numbers into the areas where peat forms. And in the tropics, although there are plenty of people, they’ve historically avoided peat swamps. These areas are nutrient-poor and unfit for agriculture.

Another issue is that although the surface boundaries of a peatland tend to be well defined, often its depth is not. Satellites and ground-penetrating radar can only see so far down—some bogs in Ireland and Germany are known to be 50 feet deep, far beyond the capacity of roving satellites to measure. So taking cores remains the single best way to determine the depth of a peat bog.

For scientists who study peatlands, that’s not as simple as it seems. They must haul all their equipment for taking samples and measurements from a dry, distant bivouac every day. But once the researchers get on site, they can’t stand still for too long otherwise they start to sink.

“If you take a peat core and dry it, 90 percent of the sample consists of water,” says Dommain. “Walking on a peatland is as close as you’ll get to Jesus, because you’re essentially walking on water.”

Image by Photo by Marcel Silvius, Wetlands International. Mentangai peat swamp forest, central Kalimantan (original image)

Image by Photo by Marcel Silvius, Wetlands International. A section of degraded and burnt peat swamp in central Kalimantan serves as a paludiculture pilot area in April 2009. (original image)

Image by Photo by Björn Vaughn. A peat swamp forest burns in Palangka Raya, Borneo in September 2015. (original image)

Image by Photo courtesy Jon Nichols. Obadiah Kopchak (left) and postdoctoral researcher Chris Moy take depth measurements at Corser Bog in Alaska. When scouting for possible peat coring sites, researchers do preliminary depth measurements by plunging a metal rod into the bog. (original image)

Image by Researchers carefully extrude a fresh peat core sample in the Belait peatlands of Brunei, which is nearly 15 feet deep and 2,800 years old. (original image)

Image by Photo courtesy Jon Nichols. A scan of a peat core shows how dead plant material becomes densely compacted over the many thousands of years during which it accumulates. (original image)

Sketching New Views

In the field, the process of determining the physical extent of the peat swamps’ carbon reserves is a slow and often frustrating process. In tropical peat forests—where layers include entire trees, roots and other woody material—even the specialized serrated devices used to extract core samples for study sometimes fail to penetrate very far. On a good day, researchers might be able to extract a single useable sample.

Measuring the rate of gas exchange, or flux, between the peat swamps and the atmosphere is another technique scientists use to study how these areas behave.

Alex Cobb, a research scientist with the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), uses a variety of techniques to measure the carbon flux from both disturbed and pristine peat swamps on the island of Borneo. From several scaffold towers—one of which rises 213 feet above the forest floor to clear the soaring Shorea albida tree canopy—instruments measure wind speed, temperature and the rate of exchange of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide between the atmosphere and the ecosystem below. Cobb and his colleagues hope that their monitoring will give them a better understanding of how changes in the water system affect peat forests and how carbon cycling changes accordingly.

“One thing that is challenging is that a lot of carbon is transported [out of the peat bogs] in the groundwater,” Cobb explains. Organic matter in the water turns the liquid the color of strong tea, which is where blackwater rivers come from, he says. "That [water] can account for 10 to 20 percent of the total carbon flux coming out of a degraded peatland.”

A full understanding of the extent of peat carbon stores and how swamps behave remains out of reach. So the ability to predict their behavior, as well as how their contributions to the global carbon cycle might fit into a larger climate model, remains an elusive goal.

Predicting the Future of Peat

As the climate warms, peatlands could go one of two ways if left to their own devices. Expanding plant ranges mean peat accumulation could increase, preserving these areas as carbon sinks. Or, warming causes precipitation fluctuations that cause peatlands to degrade into carbon sources. Not every peatland will respond to warming in the same way, so researchers need computer models to help look at all the possibilities.

Modeling allows scientists to approximate peatland functions in areas where no field measurements have ever been taken. Accurately simulating peatland behavior would allow researchers to estimate carbon and greenhouse gas fluxes without going to the gargantuan effort of visiting each and every peat deposit in the field.

But researchers need data to build accurate models, and the data collected so far isn’t nearly comprehensive enough to use in large-scale simulations. “Data without models are chaos, but models without data are fantasy,” says Steve Frolking, a biogeochemist with the University of New Hampshire who develops computer models for how peat reserves react to natural and human disruptions.

Climate models look at small chunks of area at a time; a high-resolution model’s grid cells are about 62 square miles in size. But this is still too large an area to accurately study peatland behavior.

Another issue is that each peat bog has distinctive water flow characteristics that are highly dependent on localized factors like topography and vegetation. Like soggy little butterflies, each peat swamp is special, and creating a computer model that represents their behavior from a smattering of ground observations leads to huge discrepancies when applied on a global scale.

“Where they are or how they interact each other isn’t part of the detail in these models,” Frolking says. “And for peat, that has a big impact on its hydrology. When you operate at a scale of 100 kilometers and you’re trying to model the water table to within a few centimeters, it becomes really, really hard.”

The third problem is time. Peatlands develop over millennia, while most climate models operate on the order of centuries, says Thomas Kleinen, a global carbon cycle modeler at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology. This makes inferring the conditions for how a peatland will develop in the future very difficult.

To really be able to integrate peatlands into global carbon and climate models, more comprehensive maps are necessary, as well as more data on the kinds of plants within each peatland, where and how water accumulates, and the depth of the deposits.

Satellite data is useful, as are maps made with data collected by unmanned aerial vehicles, but each has its limitations. Satellites can't penetrate very far beyond thick jungle vegetation or into the ground. And while small countries like Brunei have mapped out all of their peat swamp forests with LiDAR—an aircraft-mounted laser system that can make detailed topographic or vegetation maps, among other things—sprawling cash-strapped nations like Indonesia are unlikely to follow suit.

Turning Back the Tide

As scientists scramble to gather more data and piece together global climate models that include accurate representations of peatland, efforts are underway to curtail the rate of destruction of Southeast Asia's peat.

Indonesia’s Peatland Restoration Agency, assembled in early 2016, aims to restore 4.9 million acres of degraded peatland over the next five years by regulating its usage. The agency will catalog the canals that have already been dug through peatlands, mediate forest usage rights and raise awareness in local residents about the benefits of preserving peat swamps. The Norwegian government and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) have committed a total of $114 million towards Indonesia's efforts.

Indonesian president Joko Widodo also issued a decree late last year banning the clearing of any new peatlands, even though local restrictions had already been in place. Silvius, of Wetlands International, is skeptical the ban will work, especially since Indonesia has set a goal of doubling its palm oil output by 2020. Though they’re an agricultural area of last resort, peat swamp forests are some of the only remaining land available for farming.

And with widespread poverty in the area, Smithsonian’s Dommain adds that expecting the region to forgo the lucrative profits from palm oil is akin to asking Saudi Arabia to stop pumping oil.

“Human actions are governed by short-term profits and not by what is happening in 10, 50 or even 100 years,” Dommain observes. “It’s hard to see that there will be a massive change in this economic focus.”

However, as the low-slung peatlands that hug the Malaysian and Indonesian coastlines are drained to make way for plantations, they'll eventually sink below sea level. This could permanently flood them, rendering the land unsuitable for any agriculture.

There are ways of preserving these habitats while also utilizing them to grow crops, however. Oranges, rattan, tea tree and sago palm are examples of about 200 crops that can be cultivated within a peat swamp. Some companies are trying to develop a variety of illipe nut, from the swamp-loving Shorea stenoptera, with improved yields. Used as a substitute for cocoa butter in chocolate or in skin and hair creams, illipe may one day aid in schemes to “rewet” drained and degraded peat swamps.

‘The Indonesian government now sees that a drained peatland land-use scheme is asking for trouble,” Silvius says. “They’ll have to voluntarily phase it out, or it will be phased out by nature when everything is lost.”

The Surprising Origins of Kotex Pads

Smithsonian Magazine

What’s in a name? For Kotex, the first-ever brand of sanitary napkins to hit the U.S., everything.

The disposable sanitary napkin was a high-tech invention (inspired, incidentally, by military products) that changed the way women dealt with menstruation. It also helped to create modern perceptions of how menstruation should be managed through its advertising, which was both remarkably explicit for its time but also strictly adhered to emerging stereotypes about the “modern” woman of the 1920s should aspire to. Kotex sanitary napkins paved the way for the wide variety of feminine hygiene products on the market today by finding an answer to the crucial question: How to market a product whose function can’t be openly discussed?  “Kotex was such a departure because there just wasn’t a product” previously, says communications scholar Roseann Mandziuk.

Prior to Kotex’s arrival on the scene, women didn’t have access to disposable sanitary napkins—the “sanitary” part really was a huge step forward for women who could afford these products. But the brand’s creator, Kimberly-Clark, also reinforced through its advertising campaigns that menstruation was something to conceal and a problem for women, rather than a natural bodily function.

This early ad for Kotex pads reminds buyers that the item is "on sale at stores and shops that cater to women." (Wisconsin Historical Society, WHS-7001)

In October 1919, the Woolworth’s department store in Chicago sold the first box of Kotex pads in what might have been an embarrassing interaction between a male store clerk and a female customer. It quickly became clear that giving Kotex sanitary napkins name recognition would be vital to selling the product, and the company launched a game-changing advertising campaign that helped to shape how menstruation–and women–were seen in the 1920s.

“Ask for them by name” became an important Kotex company slogan, Mandziuk says. Asking for Kotex rather than “sanitary pads” saved women from having to publicly discuss menstruation–particularly with male shop clerks.

In 2010, Mandziuk published a study of the 1920s ad campaign promoting Kotex sanitary napkins, focusing on advertisements that appeared in Good Housekeeping. Kotex’s campaign, which began in 1921, was the first time sanitary napkins had ever been advertised on a large scale in nationally distributed women’s magazines, and Mandziuk says they represent a break in how menstruation itself was discussed. By giving women a medically sanctioned “hygienic” product to buy, rather than a made-at-home solution, they established a precedent for how menstruation products were marketed up until the present day.

For their time and place, the advertisements are almost shockingly explicit–although, like many modern ads for menstrual products, they never explicitly state their use. “All feature a single woman or a group of women in active, yet decorative poses,” Mandziuk writes in her study. The first ad to run in Good Housekeeping describes Kotex sanitary napkins as the key tool for ensuring “summer comfort” and “poise in the daintiest frocks.” But it also describes details like the size of the pad and how to buy them, although the pads were never actually pictured in the ads. The ads also promised they came “in plain wrapper.”

Another ad shows two women in an office environment. “There is nothing on the blue Kotex package except the name,” it promises, adding that the purchase is small enough to fit in a shopping bag. Advertising for Kotex sanitary napkins framed menstruation as something that could–and should–be concealed.

“It was really playing off the anxiety of women wanting to fit into this new, confusing modern culture and be a part of it,” Mandziuk says. “And yet, to be a part of it, you had to hide even moreso that you had this secret, or this thing that was disturbing to men.”

Though some Kotex sanitary napkin advertisements show women in real working environments, throughout the 1920s, the advertising increasingly moved away from being about the real working women who might benefit most from the product and more into the sphere of an ideal. The woman shown in the ads might be an elegant picnicker, a partygoer or even a traveller, but she represents an ideal “modern” woman, Mandziuk says.

This presented women with a catch-22, she says: While Kotex did make the lives of 1920s women who could afford to buy the pads better, its ads framed menstruation as a handicap that required fixing rather than a natural process.

Before Kotex sanitary napkins hit the market in 1921, most women relied on homemade cloth pads (although some storemade cloth pads and disposables had been on offer since the late 1880s.) Different women had different ways of dealing with their periods each month and there was little social expectation that all women would deal with menstruation in exactly the same way. At the same time, menstruation was a commonly accepted (if still socially concealed) reason that women might not be in the public eye during their periods.

“[Menstruation] still was hidden among the society of men,” says Mandziuk. But between women, particularly women of the same family or who shared a household, it was normal to manage menstrual supplies like handmade pads or rags together.

“Practices for making cloth pads varied,” writes historian Lara Freidenfelds in The Modern Period: Menstruation in Twentieth-Century America–but they were all based around reuse of things that already existed. “We used, just, old sheets, old things that you had around the house and things like that,” one woman told her during a series of oral history interviews.

Some women threw away their bloody cloths, writes Freidenfelds, but others washed and reused them. Either way, menstruation had the potential to be a messy and inconvenient business, as rags were hard to hold in place and didn’t absorb very much fluid.

For women who could afford such things and had access to them, there were options such as the “Hoosier” sanitary belt, which held cloth pads in place, or Lister’s Towels, possibly the first-ever disposable option, but the use of such products was not widespread, Mandziuk says.

“Kotex would have obvious appeal when it appeared on the market,” she writes, “given the discomfort and inconvenience of cloth pads, and growing expectations that women would work and attend school with their usual efficiency all month.

This ad depicts a nurse tending to a veteran in a wheelchair. The text reads, in part, "Although a woman's article, it started as Cellucotton--a wonderful sanitary absorbent which science perfected for use of our men and allied soldiers wounded in France." (Wisconsin Historical Society, WHS-49898)

Like a number of other products that first came to market in the 1920s, Kotex sanitary pads originated as a wartime invention. Kimberly-Clark, an American paper products company formed in the 1870s, produced bandages from a material called Cellucotton for World War I. Cellucotton, which was made of wood pulp,, was five times as absorbent as cotton bandages but much less expensive.

In 1919, with the war over, Kimberly-Clark executives were looking for ways to use Cellucotton in peacetime. The company got the idea of sanitary pads from the American Fund for the French Wounded, according to historians Thomas Heinrich and Bob Batchelor. The Fund “received letters from Army nurses claiming they used Cellucotton surgical dressings as makeshift sanitary napkins,” the pair write.

Kimberly-Clark employee Walter Luecke, who had been tasked with finding a use for Cellucotton, understood that a product designed to appeal to about half the country’s population could create enough demand to take the place of the wartime demand for bandages. He jumped on the idea.

But Luecke ran into problems almost immediately. The firms he approached to manufacture sanitary napkins from Kimberly-Clark’s Cellucotton refused to do so. “They argued that sanitary napkins were “too personal and could never be advertised,” Heinrich and Batchelor write. Similar doubts plagued Kimberly-Clark executives, but Luecke kept pushing and they agreed to try the idea, making the sanitary napkins themselves.

The name Kotex came from one employee’s observation that the product had a “cotton-like texture.” “Cot-tex” became the easier-to-say “Kotex,” creating a name that–like another Kimberly-Clark product, Kleenex–would become a colloquial way to refer to the class of product itself.

For the firm that Kimberly-Clark hired to do the advertising, their successful ad campaign gave them bragging rights. “I think they kind of patted themselves on the back, that if they could sell this, they could sell anything,” Mandziuk says.

For the women who used them, Kotex sanitary napkins changed how they dealt with menstruation. They set a precedent for how nearly all American women would understand menstruation and how they would deal with it up to the present day.

Rethinking the Corny History of Maize

Smithsonian Magazine

Corn is one of the world’s most important crops. We don’t just pop it and munch it on the cob; corn can be turned into flour and syrup, it is fed to livestock, it is transformed into ethanol and it can even be used to make plastic. Between 2016 and 2017, about a billion tons of corn were produced around the globe, and corn yields more than six percent of all food calories for humans.

The story of this humble yet handy starch begins thousands of years ago in Mexico, with the domestication of an ancient grass called teosinte. But according to a new study published in Science, the trajectory of teosinte’s evolution into the golden grain we know today may be more complex than scientists previously thought.

Maize domestication, the commonly accepted theory goes, happened in the Balsas River Valley of south-central Mexico. Around 9,000 years ago, early farmers in this region began selecting for favorable traits of teosinte, which looks very different to modern corn and is not particularly palatable; its cob is small and its few kernels are surrounded by a tough casing. But with human intervention, teosinte evolved into tasty, tender corn, which was subsequently carried to other parts of the Americas. By the time of European colonization in the 15th century, corn was a major food source throughout many parts of the region.

Logan Kistler, the new study's lead author and curator of archaeobotany and archaeogenomics at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, says that according to this theory, gene flow from wild teosinte was still happening in some domesticated corn, but “in a major, evolutionarily important way, gene flow more or less stopped in the common ancestor of all maize.”

Recent revelations, however, prompted Kistler and his colleagues to rethink this idea. In 2016, two independent research groups analyzed the DNA of 5,000-year-old maize cobs from a cave in Mexico, and found that the ancient corn was still in the midst of the domestication process. The cobs had some genes associated with teosinte, dictating things like seed dispersal and starch production, and other genes characteristic of domesticated corn, like variants responsible for eliminating teosinte’s hard outer casing.

These findings, according to Kistler, were surprising. By the time the cobs ended up on the floor of the ancient cave, maize had already travelled far beyond Mexico, and had been cultivated in the southwest Amazon for around 1,500 years. The grain’s evolutionary story, in other words, appeared to have forked into two different paths.

“You have this paradox, this mismatch, where you already have maize being continuously cultivated in parts of the Amazon for thousands of years, and then it's still not even finished being domesticated in the center of origin,” Kistler explains. “In order to reconcile the archaeology and the genetics ... we had to think about a new domestication model.”

So, Kistler and his fellow researchers decided to take a closer look at corn DNA—and what they found suggests that while the domestication of teosinte did indeed begin in Mexico,

We shouldn’t think of maize domestication as a discrete event. Instead, the grain’s evolution was a long and convoluted process, with the final stages of its domestication occurring more than once, in more than one place.

The new study analyzed the genomes of more than 100 varieties of modern maize, around 40 of which were sequenced by the researchers. The team also looked at the DNA of 11 ancient plants. When they mapped out the genetic connections between the specimens, the researchers discovered several distinct lineages, each with their own unique relationship to teosinte. Most significantly, the results revealed that although maize domestication began with a single large gene pool in Mexico, the grain was carried elsewhere before the domestication process was complete.

“We found in the genomes evidence that South American maize actually originated within one of these semi-domestic lineages,” Kistler says. “You had these parallel evolutions happening in different parts of the Americas, with different groups of people.”

There was, according to the study, a major wave of “proto-corn” movement from Mexico to South America. The partially domesticated maize seems to have landed in the southwest Amazon, which was already a hotspot for the domestication of other plants, including rice, squash and cassava. Kistler theorizes that maize was adopted into farming practices there, giving the domestication process a chance to pick up where it left off. It is possible, though not certain, that maize in this new location evolved more quickly than maize in the center of domestication, which would explain why the 5,000-year-old cobs from the cave in Mexico appear to be in an intermediary phase of domestication at a time when maize was already being cultivated in the Amazon.

“The reason for that is you're not having constant gene flow from the wild population … where the wild maize at the edge of the field is going to be contributing some pollen,” Kistler says. “That's going to slow down the efficiency of selection, and you're not nearly as efficiently going to be able to drive selection for those traits.”

After incubating in the southwest Amazon for several thousand years, maize went on the move again, according to the study authors—this time to the eastern Amazon, where it grew amidst a general flourishing of agriculture that archaeologists have observed in the region.

Another interesting discovery lay in the fact that modern maize from the Andes and southwestern Amazon is closely related to maize grown in eastern Brazil, which points to another movement eastward. This aligns with archaeological evidence—like the spread of ceramic traditions, for instance—suggesting that people in the Americas started expanding to the east around 1,000 years ago, according to Kistler. Today, in fact, people who speak Macro-Jê languages near Brazil’s Atlantic coast use an indigenous Amazonian word for “maize.”

The pieces of this genetic puzzle did not fit together clearly at first. Kistler said that the genomic data he and his fellow researchers collected was “really confusing for a long time.”

“We couldn't make heads or tails out of what we were seeing until we started talking to linguistic experts, paleoecologists and archaeologists,” he elaborates. “Then it clicked.”

Some revelations came about by happy coincidence. While Kistler was presenting an early version of his findings in Brazil last year, Flaviane Malaquias Costa, a PhD student at the University of São Paulo, was in the audience. She pointed out that Kistler’s genetic map bore remarkable similarity to the distribution of an Amazonian word for maize. Later, Jonas Gregorio de Souza and Eduardo Ribeiro, researchers at the University of Exeter and the Museum of Natural History, respectively, helped further link this linguistic trend to the landscape.

The team’s collective work “nicely lays out an explicit model in which maize continued to evolve after it arrived in South America,” says Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra, a plant scientist at University of California, Davis, who studies the evolutionary genetics of maize and teosinte, but was not involved in this study. “While not a second domestication per se, it does highlight that South American maize has undergone a considerable amount of adaptation somewhat independently of maize in Mexico.”

For Michael Blake, an anthropologist at the University of British Columbia whose research focuses on the origins and spread of agriculture, the study’s sequencing of nine archaeological plants is particularly exciting. “We haven’t yet had very many good contexts [in South America] where we can get good samples of archaeological maize that are reliably dated and ... well enough preserved that they can yield genetic evidence,” he says.

But Blake also notes that these ancient samples were only around 1,000 years old, which is “pretty late in the evolution of corn.” There are very few archaeological maize samples from South America dating to five or six thousand years ago, which makes it difficult to get a complete picture of the grain that was carried out of Mexico.

“The genetic characterization itself may not tell us much about the morphology [or the form and structure of the plants] because we don't know precisely what the links are between aspects of morphology and the genes themselves,” Blake explains.

Kistler acknowledges that it would be “really nice” to have such old evidence from South America, but he is also thinking about the future. It’s important to understand how corn adapted to new environments in the past because the grain continues to be a vital food source today, Kistler says. The domestication of corn has to date been so successful because a symbiotic relationship between humans and the plant has flourished for millenia; by cultivating corn, humans got a reliable food source and corn was regularly sown in a nutrient-rich environment.

Our rapidly shifting climate is, however, “slightly upending that relationship,” Kistler explains. “So it's even more important to be thinking in terms of biodiversity and where adaptability is going to come from when our food production system starts to respond badly to changing, high-level climate characteristics.”

The Splendor of Greene and Greene

Smithsonian Magazine

Overdue recognition for the brothers Charles and Henry Greene was a bittersweet triumph because it came partly in response to an irreparable loss. Arguably the greatest building by the architectural firm of Greene & Greene is the 1907 Blacker House in Pasadena, California, a masterpiece in the American Arts and Crafts style which is imbued with a love of Japanese architecture, traditional wood joinery, metal craftsmanship and classical proportion. Purchased by a Texas rancher and antiques collector who calculated that the furnishings were worth more than the $1.2 million purchase price, the Blacker House was stripped in 1985 of its art-glass windows, light fixtures and front door—a calamity that provoked the city of Pasadena to issue an ordinance protecting the interiors of its historic buildings. (The current owners of the Blacker House have commissioned replicas of leaded art-glass panels and light fixtures to substitute for the lost artifacts, and have begun commissioning reproductions of the original furniture for the house, which had been sold off even earlier at a yard sale in 1947 following the death of Robert and Nellie Blacker.)

Some of the far-flung Blacker furnishings have been reunited, along with a comprehensive collection of many other Greene & Greene designs, in the exhibition, “A New and Native Beauty: The Art and Craft of Greene & Greene,” which is on view at the Huntington in San Marino, California, through January 26, 2009. For the first time, a Greene & Greene exhibition will then travel outside California, first to the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C. (March 13-June 7, 2009) and then to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (July 14-October 18, 2009). Because the Greenes designed furnishings only for specific houses and not as production pieces, the objects are very rare and have become extremely expensive.

The Greene brothers learned carpentry and metalworking as high school students, and their designs display a craftsman’s know-how. “Their work is truly beautiful and beautifully made, and their furniture is more ergonomic than some of the furniture of the period, which is not as attuned to the human body,” says Edward R. Bosley, who curated the exhibition with Anne E. Mallek. (Bosley is the director of the one intact Greene & Greene residence, the magnificent 1908 Gamble House in Pasadena; Mallek is the house museum’s curator.) One of the goals of the curators was to re-create groupings of furniture and artifacts from the houses.

“Not only do the pieces not look right outside of their house, they don’t even look right out of their room,’ says Bosley. Since the furnishings are widely dispersed, Mallek and Bosley had to do some creative detective work to track them down. “There’s a table lamp from the Blacker House living room where one person owns the base and another person owns the shade,” he explains. “We’ve been able to bring them back together for this show.” In another act of ambitious restoration, the curators have had part of the Arturo Bandini House, a 1903 Pasadena residence that was demolished a half-century ago, reconstructed for the exhibition.

Image by Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library. Photograph of Henry Greene, c. 1906. (original image)

Image by Alexander Vertikoff. David B. Gamble house, Pasadena, 1907-09. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library. Photograph of Charles Greene, c. 1906. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Greene and Greene Archives, The Gamble House, University of Southern California. North and west elevation drawings, 1909, Charles M. Pratt house, Ojai, 1908-11. (original image)

Image by Charles Sumner Greene Collection, Environmental Design Archives, University of California, Berkeley. Covered walkway and courtyard, Arturo Bandini house, Pasadena, 1903. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Guardian Stewardship. Photograph courtesy of Sotheby's, New York. Hall chair, 1907, Dr. W.T. Bolton house, Pasadena, 1906. (original image)

Image by Private collection. Photograph © Ognen Borissov/Interfoto. Exterior wall lantern, Arthur A. Libby house, Pasadena, 1905. (original image)

In their loving gaze across the Pacific toward Japanese craftsmanship and their passionate use of local wood and stone, the Greenes produced a hybrid architecture that is a uniquely Californian achievement. And they did it in a very limited time and place. Almost all of their buildings were in Pasadena, in Los Angeles County, and most of their masterpieces were constructed during a very short period, from 1906 to 1911.

Descended from old New England stock, the Greene brothers grew up together in Cincinnati and St. Louis, studied architecture together at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and relocated together to Pasadena in 1893. At the time, the town was beginning to boom as a winter resort, favored by many of the Greenes’ fellow Midwesterners. These winter residents became the principal clients of the firm Greene & Greene. “California, with its climate, so wonderful in its possibility, is only beginning to be dreamed of,’ Charles wrote, soon after arriving. The brothers were 25 and 23 when they opened their office in Pasadena in January 1894. Within three years, they had moved to a central Pasadena building of their own design. For the wealthy clients who could afford their work, they were a godsend. The Greenes designed everything—not just the house, but the landscaping, the fittings, the furniture, the carpets. Like their contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright, they wanted control over the entire environment. “The primary difference with Frank Lloyd Wright is that the Greenes worked in one small area of the country and didn’t have the drive to expand their practice beyond Southern California,” says Bosley.

Both brothers married at the turn of the century: Henry in 1899 to a boarder at his aunt's Greene & Greene house, Charles in 1901 to an English heiress who was living a block from the house he shared with his parents. Charles, who was the elder of the two, was always viewed as the artist, Henry as more of the businessman, although the two men designed as a team. In 1909, Charles took a nine-month holiday in England. When he returned, he began to withdraw from his full-time involvement in the firm. He wrote a novel about a young architect who is kidnapped by a beautiful opera diva to design her house on a tropical island, and in 1916 he moved north, with his wife and five children, to the artists' colony of Carmel. Although Henry continued to practice architecture, with long-distance collaboration from Charles, the name Greene & Greene was discontinued in 1922. This arrangement may have suited them personally, but the legacy suffered. As a solo architect, Henry enjoyed less conspicuous success, while Charles dedicated himself to his artistic and spiritual endeavors, becoming a Buddhist. Although the men stayed on good terms, their work was eclipsed by changing fashions, and was only rediscovered seriously in the 1970s.

For the Greene brothers, every feature of a house contributed to an overall unity of feeling. Nothing can substitute for the experience of visiting the magnificent Gamble House in Pasadena, which is managed by the University of Southern California and directed by Bosley. But in place of that, the current exhibition goes a long way toward conveying how the Greene brothers raised the Arts and Crafts aesthetic of the early 20th century to its consummate American expression.

The Long, Winding Tale of Sperm Science

Smithsonian Magazine

Scott Pitnick’s tattoo isn't exactly subtle. The massive black-and-white sperm twists and spires up his right forearm, appearing to burrow in and out of his skin before emerging into a fist-sized head on his bicep. Nor is the Syracuse University biologist reserved about his unusual body art, which once made an appearance in a montage of notable scientist tattoos published in The Guardian.
For Pitnick, his intricate ink reflects his deep fascination in sperm’s “unbelievably unique biology.” Consider, he says, that sperm are the only cells in the body destined to be cast forth into a foreign environment—a feat that requires dramatic physical changes as they travel from the testes into a woman’s reproductive tract.

“No other cells do that,” says Pitnick, who has been studying sperm for more than 20 years. “They have this autonomy.”

In his lab, Pitnick engineers the heads of fruit fly sperm to glow a ghostly red and green so that he can observe them moving through dissected female fly reproductive tracts. He hopes his work will help reveal how sperm behave within female bodies, an area of research that's still in its relative infancy. These kinds of innovations could one day explain the great diversity of sperm shape and size across the animal kingdom. Moreover, they could ultimately help researchers develop human infertility treatments, as well as more effective male contraceptives.

“We understand almost nothing about sperm function, what sperm do,” Pitnick says. Many of the answers to these unknowns likely hide within the other half of sperm’s puzzle: female bodies. 

This might come as a disappointment to the courageous biologists who first looked upon sperm cells in their full glory in the 17th and 18th century, using the then-revolutionary microscope. These early sperm scientists found themselves tasked with answering the most basic of questions, for instance: Are sperm living animals? Are they parasites? And, Does each sperm contain a tiny pre-formed adult human curled up inside? (We’ll get to that one later.)

Leeuwenhoek's early microscopic observations of rabbit sperm (figs. 1-4) and dog sperm (figs. 5-8). (Wikimedia Commons)

The person with the dubious honor of being the first to study sperm in detail was Anton van Leeuwenhoek, a Dutchman who developed the early compound microscope. Van Leeuwenhoek first used his new tool to examine more chaste subjects such as bee stingers, human lice and lake water in the mid-1670s. 

Colleagues urged him to turn his lens to semen. But he worried it would be indecent to write about semen and intercourse, and so he stalled. Finally, in 1677, he gave in. Examining his own ejaculate, he was immediately struck by the tiny “animalcules” he found wriggling inside.

Hesitant to even share his findings with colleagues—let alone get a wriggler tattooed on his arm—van Leeuwenhoek hesitantly wrote to the Royal Society of London about his discovery in 1677. “If your Lordship should consider that these observations may disgust or scandalise the learned, I earnestly beg your Lordship to regard them as private and to publish or destroy them as your Lordship sees fit.”

His Lordship (aka the president of the Royal Society) did opt to publish van Leeuwenhoek’s findings in the journal Philosophical Transactions in 1678—thus begetting the brand new field of sperm biology. 

It’s hard to overstate how mysterious these squirming, microscopic commas would have appeared to scientists at the time. Before the discovery of these “animalcules,” theories of how humans made more humans ranged widely, says Bob Montgomerie, a biologist who studies animal reproduction at Queen’s University in Canada. For example, some believed that vapor emitted by male ejaculate somehow stimulated females to make babies, while others believed that men actually made babies and transferred them to females for incubation. 

“You can imagine how difficult it is when you have no idea what is going on,” says Montgomerie. That is: without being able to see sperm and eggs, these scientists were really just pulling theories out of thin air.

In the 17th century, many researchers believed each spermatozoa contained a tiny, completely pre-formed human within it, as illustrated in this 1695 sketch by Nicolaas Hartsoeker. (Wikimedia Commons)

Even after van Leeuwenhoek discovered sperm in 1677, roughly 200 years passed before scientists agreed on how humans formed. Two primary fields of thought emerged along the way: On the one hand, the “preformationists” believed that each spermatozoa—or each egg, depending on who you asked—contained a tiny, completely pre-formed human. Under this theory, the egg—or sperm—simply provided a place for development to occur.

On the other hand, “epigenesists” argued that both males and females contributed material to form a new organism, though they weren’t sure who contributed exactly what. Discoveries throughout the 1700s offered more evidence for this argument, including the 1759 discovery that chicks develop organs incrementally. (Montgomerie notes this in the book Sperm Biology: An Evolutionary Perspective, which was edited by colleagues including Pitnick.)

With improvements to the microscope, mid-19th century researchers observed embryonic development within sea urchin eggs, which are conveniently transparent. These observations continued to disprove the concept of preformation, and allowed researchers to begin asking how sperm and egg work together to create new organisms.

Sperm research also shed light on other body systems. In the 1960s, researchers identified the protein dynein, which is responsible for sperm movement. “It turns out that the same motor protein is responsible for all kinds of processes that go on in cells,” says Charles Lindemann, a professor emeritus at Oakland University in Michigan who studied sperm motility. Today we know that dynein is involved in the movement of microscopic cellular structures like cilia and flagella, which are key to many bodily functions.

Still, early progress in fertility research was slow to take off. There simply weren’t very many working scientists back then at all, let alone sperm scientists, says Montgomerie. He estimates that there were only several dozen people researching sperm at that time; by comparison, roughly 400,000 scientists study cancer today. “There were some people doing it, but maybe not enough,” says Montgomerie.

Pitnick adds that the few early researchers who did study sperm may not have fully appreciated the role of the female reproductive system in the fertility equation—an oversight that could explain why this area is still such a mystery today. “Part of that is a male bias in biology to think the female is not an important part of the story, and that goes way back in sperm biology to this whole idea of preformation,” says Pitnick.

On the more technical side, observing sperm move within the female is logistically very challenging. As Pitnick points out, it’s pretty hard to get a camera inside a female reproductive tract.

That's the genius behind his glowing fruit fly sperm and the ability to monitor them in real time. The video above shows the removed reproductive tract of a female fruit fly, which Pitnick has kept intact in a saline solution. When it was living, that female was mated to a green-sperm male, and then re-mated a few days later with a red-sperm male. Only the heads of the sperm are tagged with the fluorescent protein, so the tails of the sperm cannot be seen. 

With this kind of technology, Pitnick can gain insight into why so much variety exists in the shape and size of sperm. For example, the glowing sperm he studies have mega-long tails reaching up to 6 centimeters in length when unwound—roughly the length of your pinky finger, and the longest known in the animal kingdom. He has spent decades trying to understand why a fly would evolve this way, and has finally honed in on the female reproductive tract as the source for his answer.

While Pitnick focuses on flies, sperm have also captured the attention of modern scientists trying to help human couples trying to conceive. Pitnick’s findings could inadvertently help with this task. “In many cases, it is a compatibility difference between a specific male and female, and they don’t know the underlying mechanism,” he says. “Understanding sperm-female interactions can certainly shed light on understanding new explanations for infertility, and possibly new solutions for it.”

Basic sperm research will also help expedite progress in developing male contraceptives, says Daniel Johnston, chief of the Contraception Research Branch at the National Institutes of Health. So far, researchers have tried everything from gels to pills, but an effective, reliable male birth control remains elusive. Johnston says scientists still face the most basic of questions: what is sperm, anyways? 

Sperm cells vary incredibly across the animal kingdom. This single fruit fly sperm cell can reach several centimeters long when unfurled. (Romano Dalla)

“We need to really understand what makes up a sperm,” says Johnston, who has worked to describe the full protein contents of sperm—an important first step in understanding how to design effective contraceptives. “When you understand that, you can potentially start understanding what we need to inhibit.”

Recently, a private group called the Male Contraceptive Initiative launched a competition that will fund one innovative contraceptive research project.* Gunda Georg, a medicinal chemist at the University of Minnesota, has made it through the first round of the contest for her research on infertility-associated genes in mice that could ultimately be used to develop a male birth control pill.

Her current research helps determine appropriate dosage levels for such pharmaceuticals and assess potential side effects. After all, “if a man stops taking the pill, he has to completely return to normal,” Georg says.

Johnston is pleased to have the opportunity to support this type of research at the NIH, both out of interest in moving male contraceptives forward but also out of a fundamental intrigue in sperm that hasn’t let up over his 25-year career. “Sperm are fascinating," says Johnston. "There is nothing like them.”

Pitnick, naturally, agrees. The bashfulness that scientists like van Leeuwenhoek demonstrated in the early days, he says, has subsided in the field. “I don’t think there are too many biologists today that have any kind of discomfort level talking about this stuff,” says Pitnick. And for him, personally? “I love this biology,” he says. “I’ll talk to anyone about it who is willing to listen.”

Editor's Note, June 7, 2017: This piece originally stated that the Male Contraceptive Initiative was housed under the NIH; it is a private endeavor.

In Search of the Great American Beer

Smithsonian Magazine

When Todd Bates moved to a patch of land near Taos, New Mexico, in 1991, he had no grand visions of changing the American beer industry. After pursuing a degree in applied math and biology in Ohio, followed by stints as a designer and builder, Bates, then a 28 year-old man with more background in woodworking than beer-brewing, had accepted a job running a quiet guest ranch in the New Mexico wilderness. Tucked in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and settled by Pueblo people over a millennium ago, Taos is a place of older sensibilities, where Pueblo and Spanish culture mix and endure, so when Bates mentioned to a friend from an old Spanish family that he was suffering from digestive problems, his friend's mother didn't mince words.

"My friend's mom looked at me and went, 'Ah, you people! You move here and you don't know how to take care of yourselves! Our grandparents and tíos and tías would go to the mountains and collect herbs and we'd never get sick. The only reason you go to a doctor is so that they can help you fit in a box.'"

So for the next summer, Bates learned how to collect medicinal herbs from the area residents—an array of more than a dozen different herbs used by Native Americans and descendants of Spanish settlers for medicinal purposes. Throughout the summer, one of the crops that kept coming up again and again was something called lúpulo—the Spanish word for hop and an echo of "lupulin," the plant's active ingredient. But the hops they were collecting weren't used for brewing beer.

But Bates, now 50 years old with a carefree lilt to his voice, was never fearful of venturing into new territories. So he started brewing beer, crudely at first, with the wild hops he was harvesting. He had some previous experience with brewing beer—he'd been known to home brew a little during high school and college—so he was capable of making a simple, no-frills brew. Even from his bare-bones recipes, Bates discovered that the beer he was brewing with the wild hops ended up being more flavorful and enjoyable than any commercially available beer he could find. And that gave Todd Bates an idea.


The common hop, Humulus lupulus, dates back about six million years, to Mongolia. Dispersed by wind and animal carries, some of those hops migrated to Europe about one-and-a-half million years ago, and 500,000 years later, some migrated to North America. Throughout much of history, hops were split into two categories: Old World hops—those of European heritage—and American hops, known as H. americanus. In the early 1900s, hops growing in the wild throughout the American Southwest were deemed morphologically distinct enough to merit their own sub-species group—H. lupulus var. neomexicanus. Though some argue that American hops can be split into three varieties (those that grow in the Southwest, those that grow in the East and those that grow throughout the northern Great Plains), the truly important distinction is still between European hops, whose genetic material comes from hops that have been grown and cultivated for centuries in Europe, and American hops, whose genetic material comes from hops that grow in the wild throughout the United States.

"The difference between the American and European varieties is that there are certain compounds in those American varieties, such as geranial, which gives [the American hops] a floral quality, often a citrus quality," explains beer writer Stan Hieronymus. "The fruity quality and the varieties that people like now—gooseberries and melon and all kinds of citrus—were not [always] desirable. That's totally new."

When it comes to a beer's taste, hops work in two ways—they add bitterness or they add aroma (some hops, known as purpose hops, do both). The oldest hops, known as Noble hops, have been cultivated for centuries in central Europe and impart a smooth bitterness and spicy or floral aromas. On the opposite end of the spectrum are American hops, which have normally high concentrations of alpha acids—the class of chemical compounds responsible for a hops bitterness. Noble hops are used, primarily, in lagers. American hops, on the other hand, are often used in more bitter beers—the American pale ale or an IPA. But pure American hops have gained a negative reputation among hop growers and brewers; as Patrick Reeves and Christopher Richards note in their 2011 discussion of wild North American hops, "Wild North American hops cannot be directly used in brewing because of undesirable chemical properties that produce excessive bitterness and objectionable aromas." Until Bates introduced his pure American hops to commercial hop growers, any beer brewed with American hops used a hybrid hop—a genetic cross between a European hop and an American hop.

But even hybrid hops are a relatively recent addition to the brewing landscape. Though hop cultivators in Europe were certainly selecting for certain growing characteristics—taste or hardiness, for example—there's no evidence of purposeful crossbreeding, especially between European hops and their American cousins. In 1892, an article in the Edinburgh Review made clear how Europeans felt about American hops: "American hops may also be dismissed in a few words. Like American grapes, they derive a course [sic], rank flavour and smell from the soil in which they grow, which no management, however careful, has hitherto succeeded in neutralising. There is little chance in their competing in our market with European growth, except in season of scarcity and of unusually high prices." Then, in 1904, E.S. Salmon, a professor at Wye College in the United Kingdom, did something rather revolutionary: he crossed a wild American hop with varieties of European hops growing in Great Britain. By combining an American hop with a European hop, Salmon discovered that he could coax certain desirable characteristics from the American hop (its bittering properties, for example) while maintaining the popular aromas of a European hop. His crosses quickly became darlings of the hop world, and would remain the most widely used hop varieties through the 1970s. 

"Historically, new hop varieties were bred as replacements for those already on the market," says Shaun Townsend, assistant professor of Hop Breeding and Genetics at Oregon State University. "When a brewery identified a cultivar that worked well for their beer recipes, they were reluctant to change out that cultivar for fear of introducing undesirable flavors in the final product." Bringing a hop to commercial production is a lengthy process, taking at least eight to ten years of careful breeding and testing. Such a reluctance to experiment meant that, in the years following Salmon's cross, there wasn't much innovation in the hop world. Hybrid hops were used in Europe and in America, but mellow European flavors still reigned supreme. Even as the craft beer revolution of the late 20th century began to expand the beer drinker's palate—favoring unique flavors over the traditional pilsner or lager—hop varieties were still mainly crosses between European and American hops. Any beer currently available on the commercial market, from a Bud Light to a Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA, is brewed with hops that are either pure European stock or some hybrid cross between European and American—none are brewed with pure American hops.


While the American beer market sold massive quantities of light lager, Todd Bates was busy making medicine and homebrews from the wild American hop plant he found growing behind his mountain home. But in the mid-1990s, drought hit New Mexico's mountains, and Bates' preferred hop plant disappeared along with the rain. So he began to expand his search for wild hops, canvassing the mountains for days at a time in search of different types of neomexicanus. If he found a variety that appealed to him—whether because of aroma or growing quality—he would bring it back to his house and plant it in his backyard, for easy access. After a while, Bates had amassed a collection of more than a dozen wild hops, and he began breeding his varieties together, trying to create a pure American hop that grew well and brewed even better. "I'd grow thousands of plants and kill most of them," Bates says. "I'm the opposite of most farmers." When he found a hop that he especially liked, he would try to make a beer out of it, learning the ins-and-outs of brewing from masters like Ralph Olson (of Hopunion) or Brad Kraus (a New Mexico-based master brewer) along the way. Bates, with his biology background, treated the breeding and brewing almost like a science project, which his brewing-mentors advised against. "Ralph pretty much hammered me down and said, 'Listen Todd, the only thing that matters is that it makes good beer.'" But Bates didn't trust his palate alone—he gave samples of his beer away for free, asking anyone from close friends to nuns at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert (a New Mexico monastery which Kraus is associated with) what they thought of his fully American-hopped beer. "Everyone kept saying 'You should have a brewery! Best beer I've ever had in my life!'" he explains. "And I got excited about it and said, 'Well, let's try it for the whole hop industry.'"

It was 2007, and the United States was witnessing a nationwide craft beer boom—between 2007 and 2012, craft beer sales would double from $5.7 billion to $12 billion. But even before 2007, taste in beer was evolving, and 1,300 miles away, in Yakima, Washington, fourth-generation hop farmer Eric Desmarais of CLS Farms was watching it happen. In the 1980s, the majority of beer consumed in America came from brands like Budweiser and Miller and Coors—intense marketing in the 1970s had practically wiped out any style of beer other than a light, low-calorie lager. Bitter beers were still popular elsewhere, especially England, which pioneered breeding hops with high alpha acid content (though rejected flavors like fruit and spice) but in America, the light lager reigned supreme. It was a bleak time for innovation in American beer, and industry experts estimated that by the end of the 1980s, there would only be five brewing companies left in the United States.

Defying the homogeneity of the American scene, a small cadre of rebels began brewing beer more closely aligned with European varieties. Hoppy and aromatic, these beers signaled the beginning of the craft beer movement, first defined by Charlie Papazian, author of The Complete Joy of Home Brewing and current president of the Brewers Association as "any brewery using the manual arts and skills of a brewer to create its products." In 1980, Sierra Nevada, then a nascent Northern California brewery, released its Pale Ale—a hop-forward ale brewed with Cascade hops, an experimental hop bred in the United States from a European female and an unknown male. The resulting hop is known for its bitter, citrus flavors, and while it's impossible to say whether or not Cascade hops contain some American hop stock, Townsend notes that it's possible (Bates, for his part, is convinced that Cascade has some neomexicanus genetics). Cascade, and Sierra Nevada's Pale Ale, essentially started a brewing revolution, proving that hops with bitter, fruity qualities could produce a beer that sold well. With that single pale ale, Sierra Nevada created what Steve Hindy refers to in his history of the craft beer movement The Craft Beer Revolution as "the hop rush," the decades after the release of the Pale Ale that saw an intense proliferation of heavily-hopped, bitter pale ales, IPAs and double IPAs. The palates of American beer drinkers began to expand; in 2007, Sierra Nevada's Pale Ale was the top selling craft beer, followed by Sam Adams' Boston Lager, Blue Moon's Belgian-Style White beer (then considered a craft beer; now, not so much) and a Sam Adams seasonal release. For craft breweries, flavor options were widening—and for hop growers, this meant the opportunity to try different, unique hops.

While perusing an online brewing forum, Desmarais came across a man claiming to have cultivated over 80 varieties of wild American hops seeking a commercial hop grower to help him expand his operation. Desmarais was intrigued. "The story, to me, was very compelling. It's a native, wild grown, U.S. hop," he explains, "and the U.S. craft industry is leading the word in brewing in terms of being on the cutting edge." 

Desmarais is familiar with pushing the boundaries of the hop world, having cultivated the El Dorado hop, a fruity hop with high bitterness and aromatic qualities (descriptors range from watermelon candy to fresh cut grass). El Dorado itself is a hybrid hop, a combination of European and American hop stock. Bates had heard of El Dorado before, so when Desmarais responded to his posts, he knew he had found his match. "I wanted someone to take it for a home run," Bates says.

Hop growing is a fickle business plagued by disease and weather-sensitivity, so even though Desmarais wanted to try growing the wild New Mexico hops on his own farm, he wasn't sure how they would respond to the change in environment. Tentatively, he began moving a few of Bates' plants north, planting them in Yakima. What he found was a vigorous hop that grew like nothing he'd ever seen. Hop growers often talk about "internode distance" when discussing their hop plants, which refers to the distance between the hop plant's main stem and lateral offshoots that produce the cones. A traditional commercial hop plant might have an internode distance of 18 inches; many of Bates' wild hops had internode distances of only three to five inches, meaning they produced three or six times the cones, resulting in higher yields for the grower. After a few successful growing seasons, Desmarais and Bates worked on moving all of Bates' wild varieties—80 of them—up to CLS Farms. Of those 80 varieties, Desmarais identified at least two that grew well enough that he thought that they might appeal to brewers.

And appeal they did, especially for brewers who had heard of wild hops but never been able to get their hands on them, like Kevin Selvy of Colorado's Crazy Mountain Brewery, a microbrewery outside of Vail. For five years, he and his team scoured the American hop scene, hoping to get their hands on the ever-elusive, commercially-viable wild American hop. "We started asking around," he explains. "We called all the different hop distributors and hop brokers, and they'd never heard of it. Then we called almost every hop farmer in the country, and they'd heard of it, but weren't growing it. We tracked down some small-scale farmers who thought they had planted it in their backyard, and we'd go check it out, but it'd turn out not to be that. It was kind of an urban legend. We knew it existed, but it was hard to find."

Image by Todd Bates. A variety of neomexicanus, a varietal of hops native to the American Southwest. (original image)

Image by CLS Farms. Rows of hops at CLS Farms in Yakima, WA. (original image)

Image by CLS Farms. Rows of hops growing at CLS Farms. (original image)

Image by CLS Farms. Medusa hops growing on CLS Farms in Yakima, WA. (original image)

Image by Todd Bates. Bates' farm, with the New Mexico landscape behind. (original image)

Image by Todd Bates. Bates' New Mexico hop farm. (original image)

Image by Todd Bates. A grasshopper-devoured plant. Bates' depended on nature (weather and insects) to help weed out the successful hops from the unsuccessful ones. (original image)

Image by Todd Bates. A neomexicanus plant with doublet cones, known as "Medusa." (original image)

Image by Todd Bates. Neomexicanus hop vines can grow to heights of over 20 feet. (original image)

Image by Todd Bates. Another example of the Medusa hop plant, with its doublet cones. (original image)

Image by Todd Bates. The hops' flowers, known as cones, are used for flavor and stability in beer. (original image)

Image by Todd Bates. A variety of neomexicanus, grown at Bates' property in New Mexico. (original image)

Finally, by chance, Selvy found himself at CLS Farms, picking hops for their next contract. Desmarais showed Selvy the pure American hops, and Selvy was instantly sold. He agreed to work with Desmarais to brew the hops into a beer, a process that took about two years from start to finish. "It was a little bit of a leap of faith," Selvy points out, "because there was no real lab work done on this hop. We didn't really know much about it, or how it would taste or smell." By the end of 2013, the wild hops Selvy had chosen were ready for brewing. When the neomexicanus beer made its debut in Crazy Mountain's taproom in January of 2014, it sold out in a couple of hours.

Crazy Mountain's Neomexicanus Native Pale Ale, Selvy says, presents an intense spectrum of aroma, from guava, passion fruit, lemon lime citrus to alfalfa notes. "It's an interesting hop," Selvy says of neomexicanus varieties, "because it's presenting flavors and aromas that are unique in the hop world."

But while CLS Farms is the only commercial hop farm growing pure American hops, Crazy Mountain isn't the only brewery making beer with them—Sierra Nevada, the largest private craft brewery and seventh-largest brewery in the country, also managed to get their hands on some of Desmarais' neomexicanus hops—and their raw materials man, Tom Nielsen, thinks they can do something really special with them.

"The first time I saw them, I thought to myself, 'I want to do this project. We're going to do this. It's going to be done,'" Nielsen says. "So we got some samples in and we started brewing with it." What Nielsen found was a beer with aromas and flavors completely different from anything he'd ever tasted, with strong, fresh, almost fleshy fruit notes and spicy layers. Moreover, Nielsen found that the beer had a different effect on its drinkers, something he wasn't expecting. "I'm not saying it's like you're tripping on acid or anything," he explains, "but you just felt a little different. It was beyond the regular beer buzz."

When Sierra Nevada debuted their sample neomexicanus brews to the public, they were met with largely the same response that Crazy Mountain encountered. The beer had always been an inside favorite within Sierra Nevada, Nielsen explains, but at Sierra Nevada's Single, Fresh, Wet & Wild beer festival held in October of 2013, the keg of neomexicanus beer was gone in a half hour. Hoping to build upon that success, Sierra Nevada is planning a national release of a neomexicanus beer for later this fall. If the hops sell well, Bates will garner a modest recompense—10 cents per pound of hop sold, as per his agreement with Desmarais.

Not everyone shares Sierra Nevada's enthusiasm for pure American hops, however. The hop industry—though outwardly sexier than corn or soybeans—is still a product of modern industrial agriculture, where centralization and tradition reign supreme. The United States produces nearly one-third of all the hops in the world—of that, 79 percent is grown in Washington state. Nearly half of all hop varieties grown in Washington state fall into four hop varieties: Zeus, Cascade, Columbus/Tomahawk and Summit.

Hop crops are prone to disease—especially Hop Powdery Mildew (HPM), a serious fungal disease that contributed greatly to the decline of the New York commercial hop industry in the early 1900s. HPM didn't exist in the Pacific Northwest until the late 1990s, and there's no cure for it—growers have to use preventative fungicides in order to keep HPM from decimating their crops. Farmers are often wary of unknown hops—wild or feral hops that could carry diseases and fungi like HPM, so for three years in the late 1990s the Noxious Weed Control Board within Yakima's valley launched a campaign to raise awareness about feral hops—and to try and eradicate them.

Bates remembers seeing signs leftover from the campaign on a trip to Hopunion, a hop supplier in Yakima. "Sitting all through the offices are these election sign-looking-things, the kind you stick by the side of the road, and they say 'Eradicate All Wild Hops. Wild Hops Spread Disease. If You See Wild Hops, Call This Number.' And I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, I'm trying to promote wild hops in Washington and they spend public money to eradicate them," Bates recalls. "I asked myself, 'What am I doing here?'"

When emerging research helped advance fungicide technology, the city abandoned the campaign, but hop growers still remain hesitant about introducing unknown factors into their hop fields. "I would think there are some hop growers that really detest what we're doing with neomexicanus, bringing this foreign material to neighboring fields and possibly infecting their whole crop with this stuff," Nielsen says. "But I think Eric has done his due diligence in the greenhouse and sprayed these with mildews and other stresses and seen how actually robust they are. They're not really very susceptible."

While Bates claims to have bred for hardiness, he also acknowledges that the plants themselves seem to thrive under adverse conditions—drought, for instance. Bates tells a story about his first wild hop plant—that neomexicanus that grew in the canyon behind his house, the one that he thought he had lost forever to drought. Three years later, Bates returned to the spot where the plant had once grown—and found it thriving once again. "It never died, it just slept during the drought," he says. "I had never seen any plant that could just hang out in the ground and wait for the right conditions and grow again. And that's when I got excited about these neomexicanus hops." 

Desmarais agrees that the native hops have proven to be hardier than their European-stock counterparts, noting that while traditional hops require heavy irrigation, neomexicanus hops respond aggressively to even a tiny bit of water—making them ideal for places like Germany, whose hop crops suffer at times from lack of a formal irrigation system. As the world warms and water becomes an increasingly precious commodity, Desmarais thinks growing neomexicanus hops might become appealing to more growers.

The hops' hardiness could also expand the hop industry in the United States, by allowing places like Colorado, New Mexico, or even California, who haven't traditionally have much success growing hops, to gain a foothold in the business. "[The hop industry] are a little limited to a handful of varietals, a handful that come out of the Northwest or Europe that we know just can't do well in Colorado," Selvy says. "This new species might open up conceivably hundreds of new varietals that should grow successfully in this region, because it's native to here."

Whether or not neomexicanus ends up revolutionizing the beer industry, Bates is proud to have brought a wild plant to commercial production—something he calls one of his main passions. "A weed is a plant whose job is yet to be discovered," Bates says, "and this was truly being listed as a weed." Soon, it will be the American beer drinkers turn to decide whether or not this American weed can help brew the next great American beer.

A Whale’s Baleen Bristles Reveal the Story of Its Life

Smithsonian Magazine

Had he glanced over his shoulder just before the “great fish” swallowed him, biblical Jonah would have had an enviable view. Enviable, that is, if you’re Alex Werth, a landlocked biologist who studies the feeding anatomy of whales. “Ah, to be Jonah and watch baleen in action from a seat on a whale’s tongue,” he says.

Baleen is the apparatus toothless whales rely on to filter food from the sea. Hundreds of these flexible plates, made of the structural protein keratin, grow downward from a whale’s upper jaw, lined up like the slats of venetian blinds. Fitting the plates into the mouth requires a large upper jaw, giving baleen whales a sort of upside-down grin.

The feeding structure evolved stepwise some 30 million years ago when the oceans were full of toothed whales competing for limited food. Having developed a tool and taste for other kinds of prey, baleen whales—known collectively as mysticetes—eventually split off and diverged into 12 or more species including the blue whale, the largest animal ever to have lived, along with humpbacks, grays, and right whales. And, at least until American commercial whalers commenced heavy pursuit some 200 years ago, these relatively passive feeders gulping down little marine animals by the tonne did just fine.

 “Baleen changed everything,” Werth says. “And yet our understanding of aspects of this anatomy is still tissue thin.” Many scientists concur that filter feeding found footing in the Oligocene (33.9 to 23 million years ago) as changes in Southern Ocean currents brought massive plankton blooms—a ready new food source. (Interestingly, the animals didn’t start out as giants. A new report published in May 2017 suggests that their gigantism came later, perhaps three million years ago, as prey became more tightly packed but patchier—the result of intense nutrient upwellings. This dining style favored whales that could both binge feed and were bulky enough to travel far between patches—baleen whales grew to meet the challenge.)

The estimated time of baleen whales’ arrival is where common ground among scientists ends. Few agree, Werth says, on the steps by which the filtration system evolved in whales, how intermediate forms fed (likely by suction, according to the latest fossil find), “or even how [baleen] works with the forces and flows of the sea.”

But while some of whales’ deep past continues to perplex, scientists today have discovered an unexpected source of clarity, a detailed treasure map hidden inside baleen. Information associated with keratin, either in the protein or alongside it, holds chemical timestamps and data on whales’ health, movements, and reproduction. “It’s as if these animals have been keeping a daily journal, and suddenly we can see what they’ve been writing,” says endocrinologist Kathleen Hunt of Northern Arizona University. And the narrative unfolding from the baleen could inform whale conservation in whole new ways.

How did whales make the jump from using teeth to baleen? Researchers from Museums Victoria and Monash University in Australia, with help from Alfred, a 25-million-year-old fossil whale, bring you the latest science.

Werth’s lab at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, where he studies the hydromechanics of baleen, smells a bit whaley. Baleen is everywhere: long, desiccated slats lie on shelves; a quiver of tall, narrow plates wrapped in plastic, their gummy ends dunked in preservative, leans in the corner. And then there’s the 160 kilograms of fresh baleen in tightly lidded barrels in the hall, just arrived from collaborators in Alaska.

Old baleen splits like fingernails, which reveals its structure: each curved plate is two flat keratin layers with rows of tubules, like miniature coils of tightly rolled luncheon meat, sandwiched between. The whale’s massive tongue and its prey washing in and out abrade the material, freeing up a sort of fringe at the edges—what Aristotle compared to “hog’s bristles.” The coarseness of those filaments, just as the size, shape, and number of baleen plates, depends on the species, and it is this hairy stuff that separates food from each mouthful of seawater.

Filter feeding may have given the mysticetes a way forward millions of years ago, but the oceans are undergoing rapid change today, especially in regions once chockablock with sea ice. Werth says this “could have dire effects on even the most adaptive marine animals.”

Consider the bowhead whale. The sleek black mammal with the white soul patch, native to Earth’s chilliest waters, is at the center of environmental change. It spends its entire life within the Arctic, moving seasonally with the edge of the pack ice as it forms and retreats. Feeding on almost two tonnes of fresh zooplankton daily, bowheads grow large, some to 18 meters, and live long, upwards of 100 years—possibly the longest of any modern mammal.

For a baleen researcher, the species is pure gold. It has more and longer baleen plates (up to 350 per side at four meters apiece) than any other whale, including the gargantuan blue. Many Indigenous Alaskans who legally hunt bowheads will share baleen with researchers, thus Werth’s barrels in the hall. Whale-stranding networks provide another source. Older samples, going back to whaling expeditions of the mid-1800s, gather dust in museum storage cabinets and private collections, ripe for study.

Kathleen Hunt, like Werth, is taking advantage of this resource. Ultimately she wants to know how bowheads are coping with the growing human impact on their environment. Melting ice is opening the Arctic to more ship traffic, seismic exploration, oil and gas development, and fishing. For marine mammals this translates to more ship strikes, more entanglements in fishing nets, and more noise. “Are they stressed out? Is human activity affecting their reproduction?” she asks. No one knows.

The researcher came by baleen as a data source in desperation. She knew hormones could answer many of her questions, but whales are notoriously difficult to study, much less sample. “You can never really get a hold of your animal,” Hunt says. “There’s no tranquilizing a whale or getting it back to the lab.”

Blue whales, the largest animals on Earth, use their baleen to feed on some of the ocean’s smallest animals. This feeding-in-action drone footage was captured by Oregon State University. Video by GEMM Lab, Oregon State University

One can, if extremely motivated and even more patient, collect feces, skin and blubber samples, and even respiratory vapor from a whale’s blowhole. But these offer only snapshots of a single point in time. Hunt wanted broader coverage. Earwax plugs lay down incremental data but it isn’t terribly precise, and the plugs are hard to extract intact from a skull, so supplies are limited.

After Hunt “[flailed] around with poop and blow” for about 13 years, a colleague suggested baleen. After all, hair, hooves, horns, nails, and other vertebrate structures that are also made of keratin, hold all kinds of information, including endocrine data from the many glands sending hormones through the body.

It turns out, baleen houses the same information, and it can be extracted from drilled-out, pulverized samples. Since the plates grow throughout an animal’s life, they continually capture hormonal signals—from the adrenal glands, gonads, and thyroid. “We can get data not just from the new part [of the baleen], but from the bit that’s been rattling around under the sea for a dozen or more years,” Hunt says. A plate erodes at one end as it grows at the other, so it represents a slice of life—sometimes 15 years worth.

Hunt gleaned a lot about whale reproduction studying baleen from two female North Atlantic right whales, Stumpy and Staccato, that scientists had been observing off New England since the 1970s. A good bit of the whales’ life histories, including calving successes, were well documented, letting Hunt create a timeline for each—all the way to death (both died of ship strikes, one of them pregnant at the time). Since scientists have calculated an approximate growth rate for baleen—so much time per centimeter—Hunt could line up hormonal data extracted from the baleen with the whale’s experiences at that time of its life, suggesting important correlations.

“Things like estrus cycles and age of sexual maturity, pregnancy rates, these are really a black box for researchers,” Hunt says, but now with baleen there may be potential to decipher them. She discovered clear patterns in progesterone (it is “screamingly high” during pregnancy) that partner with ups and downs in the stress hormone cortisol. Additionally, she says, thyroid hormones could reveal if an animal is starving (whales may “turn down” their metabolic rate to conserve energy) while a spike in aldosterone, used to conserve water, is shown in other animals to be a sign of stress so may signal the same in whales.

Hunt believes having such information, which can be overlaid with environmental data such as sea temperatures, will open a portal on more complex mysteries. “Why are females not breeding in this area but are in that one?” she asks as an example. “Is it a nutritional problem? Are females losing calves or just not getting pregnant?” The right combination of datapoints could provide answers.

Additionally, finding correlations between changes in stress hormones and reproductive success, for example, “could be really useful in policymaking,” she says. And in the big picture there are the effects of climate change. “That’s, of course, a burning question,” says Hunt, and so far, scientists have no idea what those effects will be for whales. Perhaps as whale prey shifts in response to rising ocean temperatures, biologists will see nutritional stresses in the whales related to a change in or reduced amount of food. Hunt hypothesizes such an effect could be teased out of thyroid and other data.

What Hunt has begun seems poised to pop the lids on many black boxes in the near future.

Meanwhile, hormones aren’t the only chemical treasure trapped in baleen. Like Hunt, Alyson Fleming of the Smithsonian Institution is extracting otherwise invisible data from the mouths of whales.

The biological oceanographer has handled hundreds of baleen samples in her studies of stable isotopes—elements including carbon and nitrogen with predictable “signatures” related to their mass. One form of carbon, for instance, has more neutrons than the other and thus is heavier and reacts differently in chemical and physical processes. What’s useful to Fleming is that these elements can act as tracers of different aspects of the environment, including, for a migrating whale, its geographic location and the trophic level (position in the food web) of what the whale has been eating.

Take bowheads. These whales migrate seasonally between the Beaufort and Bering Seas, and those oceans, and the animals living in them, are isotopically different from one another. That’s in part because the Beaufort gets fresh water from river systems, and fresh water has a particular isotopic signature that shows up in the euphausiids, such as krill, and copepods it supports.

Nourished by those prey species, the whales use oxygen, carbon, and nitrogen to build bone and baleen. And, helpfully, the ratios of those elements reflect the ocean the whales are feeding in at the time of growth. Sampling all along a baleen plate with mass spectrometry reveals the isotopic markers over time, including the transition from one ocean to another. Because researchers know the general timing of migrations between these oceans and can use that, along with isotope data, to gauge the baleen’s growth rate, the plates offer a sort of time-stamped map of a whale’s trip, including where it lingers to feed along the way.

More specifically, Fleming explains that carbon isotope ratios can be correlated to both the amount and growth rate of phytoplankton—the drifting photosynthetic life at the base of the marine food chain. “So this is one rough way to assess how much productivity there is”—which ultimately translates into energy available to filter-feeding whales.

Some of Fleming’s work could simply suggest which species are most threatened by environmental change, she says. “Previously we did a humpback project, using skin samples, looking at 20 years of foraging off California. What we found out is these animals were very flexible—they switched prey depending on what was abundant.” Humpbacks may be resourceful, she says, “but what about bowheads? The baleen can help answer that,” giving managers a tool in deciding where to focus their efforts.

Eventually, Fleming, Hunt, and other baleen researchers may be able to extend their timelines in both directions. At one end are fresh samples from stranded and legally hunted whales, offering a modern take on whales’ lives. The other end lies in baleen of old: the material was used as early as the 1500s in jewelry, boxes, combs, shoehorns, and other products. “We’re trying to use the least valuable samples before digging into the rare stuff, and we don’t yet know if hormones and other chemicals will have held up that long,” Hunt says. “But it is my hope to bring it all together, to observe trends in baleen over a very long period of time.”

Baleen-based research is in its early days. Other researchers have reported on the dietary overlap between species (it’s useful to know whether animals are competing for the same prey, especially if that prey declines) and mercury exposure, and the pool of information keeps expanding. It’s clear that collaboration with other data gatherers—overlaying personal, physical, and environmental data from a whale’s life—has massive potential for conservation. There’s a very big picture squeezed into this peculiar anatomy, the scientists say, including the complex connections between ecosystem productivity, stress, reproduction, and even the human footprint in these remote habitats.

Researchers hope that building timelines and finding links can ultimately inform wildlife managers and policymakers. It’s an uphill battle, as a number of whale species never recovered from commercial whaling’s historic slaughter—Antarctic blue whales, for one, are holding at just one percent of pre-exploitation levels. But species aren’t all in the same boat. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, although North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales are endangered, some populations of bowheads, southern right whales, and gray whales are considered of “least concern.”

For now, anyway. Today’s foes to whales are multiplying faster than the data about their lives can be assembled. Ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements are common enemy number one. Conservationists also worry about noise, warming temperatures and its many ramifications, exposure to polluted waters, and ocean acidification. These threats, especially combined, are extremely hard to quantify.

But as researchers drill further into baleen’s molecular treasury, they’ll doubtless find new ways to use data from the past and present to plan for the future. The peculiar grin of the baleen whale is turning out to be full of surprises.

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Leo Villareal's 23,000 Points of Light Illuminate the Renwick Gallery

Smithsonian Magazine

Many sculptors use clay, plaster or metal. Leo Villareal prefers LEDS.

The New York City-based artist has pioneered a particular type of “light sculpting,” using tens of thousands of individual LED bulbs and a customized computer program to illuminate them.

It’s all a bit futuristic, which makes his latest work particularly intriguing: a site-specific light sculpture created for the reopening of the 156-year-old Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and featured as part of the new “Wonder” exhibition, showcasing the works of eight other contemporary artists. 

“Above the doors of the Renwick, it says ‘Dedicated to Art,’ which is pretty wonderful and as I understand it, James Renwick was inspired by the Louvre,” says Villareal, of the self-taught 19th-century architect who designed and built the museum. 

Inspiring something new from something old is appropriate to his own approach to art. “I start with what’s there, what’s given, and try to figure out how I can augment—not use the building as a pedestal or add a bunch of things that don’t feel appropriate,” says Villareal, whose work has been shown in MoMA, PS1 and LACMA. But he says the Renwick stands out as a historic location. 

Villareal’s piece, titled Volume (Renwick), holds pride of place installed above the museum’s historic grand stairway. It uses LEDS embedded in 320 mirrored stainless steel rods. He describes the reflective metal as a kind of “camouflage” that takes in the surrounding environments and almost becomes invisible. 

“It’s exciting to put new things together with historic,” says Villareal. (Leo Villareal, courtesy CONNERSMITH)

“Fully engaging in each of the environments is part of the goal,” says Villareal. Even without the LEDS he aims for the work to be an “optically potent object” and function as a standalone sculpture itself. All the hardware is custom-made, so “it’s exciting to not be limited to what you can get off the shelf.”

But lights are key to the piece, with 23,000 individual LED bulbs densely packed into the area. It requires hours using his custom software to tune it, adjust it, and refine the light patterns to create the right brightness and tempo—part conductor, part programmer. 

“The most exciting moment for me is to sit down in front of the piece and actually have control of it with my laptop,” he says. “There’s a lot of testing with these things. The installation is complicated because it’s a historic building. Hopefully all this planning will pay off.”

Villareal began using lights in his work “as soon as I could afford them”—creating his first light sculpture in 1997 with strobe lights and eventually moving into LEDs. He prefers them over incandescent bulbs or other types of illumination since they offer reliable, solid-state lighting, with long lifespans and energy efficiency. 

Villareal aims for the work to be an “optically potent object” and function as a standalone sculpture itself. (© Leo Villareal, courtesy CONNERSMITH/ Ron Blunt)

“It’s important to me personally that it be energy efficient,” says Villareal. 

Some of these projects can take years, from the early planning stages to the final adjusting. His largest work so far is The Bay Lights, when 25,000 lights were strung almost 1.8 miles across San Francisco’s Bay Bridge. As for efficiency, he estimates that the work costs less than $30 a night to operate. They also have a solar farm that offsets that cost. (He has yet to determine the expense of the Renwick work.) 

The Renwick piece is much denser, measuring about 20-feet long by 9-feet wide and installed over the museum's grand staircase. The work is indicative of his growing interest in three-dimensional works. Having mostly worked in height and width, this “volumetric display” allows Villareal to be even more of a “sculptor.” 

He was sending fabricators down to install the work at the end of September. The work breaks down into fairly compact pieces, fitting into crates that he has to figure out how to get into the gallery.

“The most exciting moment for me is to sit down in front of the piece and actually have control of it with my laptop,” says Villareal. (Renwick Gallery)

“Seeing how these things interact with space and with the historic element of the Renwick is really interesting,” he says. “It’s exciting to put new things together with historic.”

Even though he’s using a computer, this is partly an improvisation as Villareal and his team have developed custom tools and software over the past decade, which ensures that the sequences never repeat, keeping things from getting predictable, even for the artist himself. He works with programmers and “a pretty great team of engineers,” who develop the actual software, but “at the end of the day I’m the one using the tool to actually sequence pieces.”

He aims to create what he calls “ephemeral”—which will have a presence but will also be very fleeting.

“There’s a lot of subtlety to these pieces,” he says. “These are digital artworks, but the exciting thing is to put them into the real world, actually put them in the space.” 

Leo Villareal is one of nine contemporary artists featured in the exhibition “Wonder,” on view November 13, 2015 through July 10, 2016, at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

The Amazing Story of the First All-Women North Pole Expedition

Smithsonian Magazine

The frigid landscape of the North Pole is a stark and dangerous environment. There is no land underneath the rugged terrain on the geographic top of the world; it's all ice interspersed with frequent stretches of deadly cold water. This treacherous environment has long tempted explorers—from Robert Peary and Matthew Henson’s first trip in 1909 to Will Steger’s unsupported dog sled trip in 1986.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of one of the most epic but least known adventures: the first all-women relay expedition to the North Pole. ESPN’s latest 30 for 30 podcast recounts the inspirational and harrowing story of how 20 amateur women from the U.K. came together to undertake one of the most challenging expeditions on Earth.

The idea for the trip was "hatched on a whim," reporter and producer Rose Eveleth explains in the podcast. In June 1995, film financier Caroline Hamilton was chatting with her friend's boyfriend Pen Hadow, who was a polar explorer. She listened to his description of skiing to the North Pole and was inspired. "I thought, if he could do it so can I," she tells Rose. 

The problem was that mounting an expedition was expensive. In Hadow's estimation the venture would cost roughly half a million dollars. So the duo came up with a plan to drum up publicity and sponsorship cash: Hamilton would organize the first all-women expedition to the North Pole. She wasn't just looking for super-elite outdoorswomen. Instead, she would open the expedition up to any woman who was fit enough to participate.

A few months later, a noticed appeared in the classified ads of The Telegraph:

"Applications are invited from women of any age, background and occupation, but they will have to prove fitness and commitment. They will have to put up with real pain and discomfort. They will wonder every ten steps what they are doing but they have the opportunity in an epic endeavor.”

That ad attracted 200 applications—and 60 those women showed up in the remote moorlands of Dartmoor National Park for two rounds of grueling tryouts. The group was whittled down to 20 amateur adventurers. Among the lot there was Ann Daniels, a former bank clerk and mother of young triplets; Sue Riches, a breast cancer survivor; Victoria Humphries, Sue Riche's daughter who joined not knowing of her mother's participation; and Matty McNair, one of two polar guides who would lead the group of amateurs to the top of the world.

The team was divided into five groups of four adventurers, each of which would tackle one leg of the 416-mile slog over the ice from Arctic Canada to the Pole, pulling their gear behind them on sledges. Facing temperatures of almost -50 degrees Fahrenheit, blasting winds and ever-changing ice, which could (and occasionally did) crumble into open water at any minute, the women carried on.

The challenges were deadly. On several occasions the plucky but inexperienced explorers came close to freezing to death. And though we won’t spoil the conclusion to the podcast, know that the trip not only challenged the minds and bodies of the women, it also reshaped the course of many their lives. Some of the participants continued on to trek to the South Pole and to relive the venture to the North Pole.

In the end, the story is a little bittersweet. It's unlikely that there will be any similar expeditions up North any time soon—if ever. In recent years, melting sea ice has made human-powered trips to the pole extremely treacherous. Every year, the ice has grown thinner and less stable. But perhaps these amazing women's sacrifices and spirit of adventure can inspire people in the fight to protect our breathtaking but delicate environment.

Hordes of Gelatinous “Sea Pickles” Are Invading the West Coast

Smithsonian Magazine

This past spring, hordes of bizarre sea creatures began swarming the coast of Oregon. They had bumpy, tubular bodies, gelatinous skin, and they emitted a strange glow. Sometimes called “sea pickles,” these creatures are more accurately known as pyrosomes, as Eleanor Ainge Roy reports for the Guardian. And much to the bewilderment of marine scientists and fishers, they are spreading quickly.

Millions of pyrosomes are now clogging up the West Coast, ripping apart fishing nets, getting caught on fishing hooks, and washing up onto the beach. They have invaded the waters of British Columbia, and have been spotted as far afield as Sitka, Alaska. During a cruise to study the critters, one team of researchers scooped up 60,000 pyrosomes in five minutes.

Though they look like single organisms, each pyrosome is in fact a colony of tiny multi-celled animals called zooids, Craig Welch explains for National Geographic. They reproduce asexually, feed on plankton, and are bioluminescent. Typically, pyrosomes are found in warm waters like the Ivory Coast or the Mediterranean Sea, where some species can grow to up 60 feet long and wide enough for a person to fit inside.

By and large, however, pyrosomes are mysterious creatures. Marine biologists rarely get a chance to observe them, since they tend to stay far below the surface of the ocean, away from the shore. So scientists aren’t entirely sure why pyrosomes have proliferated to such extremes along the Pacific coast.

Hilarie Sorensen, a graduate student at the University of Oregon, is part of a research team studying the baffling bloom. Writing in a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) blog, she suggests that the pyrosomes “are being delivered to coastal waters from farther offshore, and that warmer ocean conditions over the past three years are creating an ideal environment for them to thrive.” But other explanations—like atypical sea currents and a change in the animals’ diet—are also possible.

The ecological impact of the pyrosome bloom also remains unclear. According to Welch of National Geographic, some scientists worry that if the animals die en masse, they will leach oxygen out of the water and endanger other marine life. Pyrosomes also pose an economic threat to fisheries. In Sitka, fishermen have reportedly stopped trying to fish for salmon because the waterways are so clogged with the jelly-like creatures.

Sorenson and her colleagues have embarked on two cruises to catch and observe pyrosomes. During one expedition, cameras captured thousands of the creatures floating at a depth of 100 meters. But more research is needed to unravel the many mysteries of these peculiar sea pickles.

Why Humans Are the Only Primates Capable of Talking

Smithsonian Magazine

Compared to humans, most primates produce a limited range of vocalizations: At one end of the spectrum, there’s the Calabar angwantibo, an arboreal west African critter capable of offering up just two distinct calls. At the other end, there’s the bonobo, a skilled chatterbox known to voice at least 38 different calls.

A new study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience suggests these variations can’t be attributed simply to inadequate vocal anatomy. Like their hominid cousins, non-human primates possess a functional larynx and vocal tract. The crux of the matter, according to lead author Jacob Dunn, a zoologist at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, is brainpower.

“The primate vocal tract is ‘speech ready,’ but ... most species don’t have the neural control to make the complex sounds that comprise human speech,” Dunn writes for The Conversation.

Dunn and co-author Jeroen Smaers of New York’s Stony Brook University ranked 34 primate species according to vocal ability, as represented by the number of distinct calls the animals produce. The pair then analyzed these rankings in relation to existing studies of the respective species’ brains.

Apes with varied vocalization patterns tended to have larger cortical association areas (neural regions responsible for responding to sensory input) and brainstem nuclei involved in control of the tongue muscles, Victoria Gill reports for BBC News.

These findings, according to a press release, reveal a positive correlation between relative size of cortical association areas and primates’ range of distinct vocalizations. In layman’s terms, speech ability comes down to neural networks, not vocal anatomy. Primates whose sound-producing brain regions are larger can produce a wider variety of calls than those with relatively smaller brain regions.

Dunn and Smaers’ research offers insights on the evolution of speech, Gill notes. Instead of attributing speech skills to humans’ allegedly superior intelligence, the study suggests that speech evolved in conjunction with the rewiring of human brains.

As mankind placed increasing importance on vocal communication, neural regions evolved to fit these needs. Apes, on the other hand, adapted to fit different priorities, retaining an anatomical capacity for vocalization but failing to develop the accompanying neural characteristics needed for speech.

In an interview with Gill, Durham University zoologist Zanna Clay, who was not involved in the study, described the new findings as “interesting,” but added that scientists still lack a basic understanding of how primates use and interpret vocalizations.

Clay, co-author of a 2015 study on bonobo communication, previously told BBC News’ Jonathan Webb that bonobos release identical squeaking sounds, or “peeps,” during disparate situations such as feeding and traveling.

“On their own, [the peeps] don't tie so strongly to one meaning," Clay said.

Within a certain context, however, peeps relay different meanings—perhaps related to the situation at hand or placement in a sequence of vocalizations. This suggests that bonobos are capable of understanding “structural flexibility,” or the use of a single vocal signal in multiple contexts. This phenomenon was previously believed to be a uniquely human ability, Webb writes.

“We do not even really understand how the primates themselves classify their own vocal repertoires,” Clay tells Gill. “This needs to come first before correlations are made. We know that many primates and other animals can escape the constraints of a relatively fixed vocal system by combining calls together in different ways to create different meanings. The extent to which call combinations might map on to [brain anatomy] would be a promising avenue to explore."

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