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“Weak Lensing” Helps Astronomers Map the Mass of the Universe

Smithsonian Magazine

In ordinary visible light, this cluster of galaxies doesn’t look like much. There are bigger clusters with larger and more dramatic-looking galaxies in them. But there’s more to this image than galaxies, even in visible light. The gravity from the cluster magnifies and distorts light passing near it, and mapping that distortion reveals something about a substance ordinarily hidden from us: dark matter.

This collection of galaxies is famously called the “Bullet Cluster,” and the dark matter inside it was detected through a method called “weak gravitational lensing.” By tracking distortions in light as it passes through the cluster, astronomers can create a sort of topographical map of the mass in the cluster, where the “hills” are places of strong gravity and “valleys” are places of weak gravity. The reason dark matter—the mysterious substance that makes up most of the mass in the universe—is so hard to study is because it doesn’t emit or absorb light. But it does have gravity, and thus it shows up in a topographical map of this kind.

The Bullet Cluster is one of the best places to see the effects of dark matter, but it’s only one object. Much of the real power of weak gravitational lensing involves looking at thousands or millions of galaxies covering large patches of the sky.

To do that, we need big telescopes capable of mapping the cosmos in detail. One of these is the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), which is under construction in Chile, and should begin operations in 2022 and run until 2032. It’s an ambitious project that will ultimately create a topographical map of the universe.

“[LSST] is going to observe roughly half of the sky over a ten-year period,” says LSST deputy director Beth Willman. The observatory has “a broad range of science goals, from dark energy and weak [gravitational] lensing, to studying the solar system, to studying the Milky Way, to studying how the night sky changes with time.”

Artist’s rendering of the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, currently under construction in Chile (Michael Mullen Design, LSST Corporation)

To study the structure of the universe, astronomers employ two basic strategies: going deep, and going wide. The Hubble Space Telescope, for example, is good at going deep: its design lets it look for some of the faintest galaxies in the cosmos. LSST, on the other hand, will go wide.

“The size of the telescope itself isn't remarkable,” says Willman. LSST will be 27 feet in diameter, which puts it in the middle range of existing telescopes. “The unique part of LSST's instrumentation is the field of view of [its] camera that's going to be put on it, which is roughly 40 times the size of the full moon.” By contrast, a normal telescope the same size as LSST would view a patch of the sky less than one-quarter of the moon’s size.

In other words, LSST will combine the kind of big-picture image of the sky you’d get by using a normal digital camera, with the depth of vision provided by a big telescope. The combination will be breathtaking, and it’s all due to the telescope’s unique design.

LSST will employ three large mirrors, where most other large telescopes use two mirrors. (It’s impossible to make lenses as large as astronomers need, so most observatories use mirrors, which can technically be built to any size.) Those mirrors are designed to focus as much light as possible onto the camera, which will be a whopping 63 inches across, with 3.2 billion pixels.

Willman says, “Once it's put together and deployed onto the sky, it will be the largest camera being used for astronomical optical observations.”

While ordinary cameras are designed to recreate the colors and light levels that can be perceived by the human eye, LSST’s camera will “see” five colors. Some of those colors overlap those seen by the retinal cells in our eyes, but they also include light in the infrared and ultraviolet part of the spectrum.

After the Big Bang, the universe was a hot mess—of particles. Soon, that quagmire cooled and expanded to the point where the particles could begin attracting each other, sticking together to form the first stars and galaxies and forming a huge cosmic web. The junctions of which grew into large galaxy clusters, linked by long thin filaments, and separated by mostly-empty voids. At least that’s our best guess, according to computer simulations that show how dark matter should clump together under the pull of gravity.

Weak gravitational lensing turns out to be a really good way to test these simulations. Albert Einstein showed mathematically that gravity affects the path of light, pulling it slightly out of its straight-line motion. In 1919, British astronomer Arthur Eddington and his colleagues successfully measured this effect, in what was the first major triumph for Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

The amount light bends depends on the strength of the gravitational field it encounters, which is governed by the source’s mass, size and shape. In cosmic terms, the sun is small and low in mass, so it nudges light by only a small amount. But galaxies have billions and billions of stars, and galaxy clusters like the Bullet Cluster consist of hundreds or thousands of galaxies, along with plenty of hot plasma and extra dark matter holding them all together and the cumulative affect on light can be quite significant. (Fun fact: Einstein didn’t think lensing would actually be useful, since he only thought of it in terms of stars, not galaxies.)

A dark matter map, created by Japanese astronomers using weak lensing (Satoshi Miyazaki, et al.)

Strong gravitational lensing is produced by very massive objects that take up relatively little space; an object with the same mass but spread out over a larger volume will still deflect light, but not as dramatically. That’s weak gravitational lensing—usually just called “weak lensing”—in essence.

Every direction you look in the universe, you see lots of galaxies. The most distant galaxies may be too faint to see, but we still see some of their light filtering through as background light. When that light reaches a closer galaxy or galaxy cluster on its way to Earth, weak lensing will make that light a little brighter. This is a small effect (that’s why we say “weak”, after all), but astronomers can use it to map the mass in the universe.

The 100 billion or so galaxies in the observable universe provide a lot of opportunities for weak lensing, and that’s where observatories like LSST come in. Unlike most other observatories, LSST will survey large patches of the sky in a set pattern, rather than letting individual astronomers dictate where the telescope points. In this way it resembles the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), the pioneering observatory that has been a boon to astronomers for nearly 20 years.

A major goal of projects like SDSS and LSST is a census of the galactic population. How many galaxies are out there, and how massive are they? Are they randomly scattered across the sky, or do they fall into patterns? Are the apparent voids real—that is, places with few or no galaxies at all?

The number and distribution of galaxies gives information about the biggest cosmic mysteries. For example, the same computer simulations that describe the cosmic web tell us we should be seeing more small galaxies than show up in our telescopes, and weak lensing can help us find them.

Additionally, mapping galaxies is one guide to dark energy, the name we give the accelerating expansion of the universe. If dark energy has been constant all the time, or if it has different strengths in different places and times, the cosmic web should reflect that. In other words, the topographical map from weak lensing may help us answer one of the biggest questions of all: just what is dark energy?

Finally, weak lensing could help us with the lowest-mass particles we know: neutrinos. These fast-moving particles don’t stick around in galaxies as they form, but they carry away energy and mass as they go. If they take away too much, galaxies don’t grow as big, so weak lensing surveys could help us figure out how much mass neutrinos have

Like SDSS, LSST will release its data to astronomers regardless of whether they’re members of the collaboration, enabling any interested scientist to use it in their research.

“Running the telescope in survey mode, and then getting those extensive high-level calibrated data products out to the entire scientific community are really gonna combine to make LSST be the most productive facility in the history of astronomy,” says Willman. “That's what I'm aiming for anyway.”

The power of astronomy is using interesting ideas—even ones we once thought wouldn’t be useful—in unexpected ways. Weak lensing gives us an indirect way to see invisible or very tiny things. For something called “weak,” weak lensing is a strong ally in our quest to understand the universe.

“Unschooled” Kids Do Just Fine in College

Smithsonian Magazine

Unschooling—child-directed learning—is “the final and most extreme frontier in the broader cultural shift toward 'child-centred' parenting,” says the Globe and Mail. Unlike more traditional homeschooling, in which parents "try to replicate the formal curriculum of the school system in the home," says University Affairs, unschooling "encourages kids to do pretty much whatever they want with their time.”

The idea is that children are, by default, keen learners. If something strikes their passions, the thinking goes, kids will pursue it to the end, picking up intellectual skills and self-motivation as they go.

The question that's always posed to unschooling is whether kids who learn in this way are set up to succeed when confronted by the structured, organized, hierarchical society that awaits. According to new research, described by Luba Vangelova for KQED, it seems that—contrary to what skeptics might assume—unschooled kids do just fine when transitioning to more traditional colleges.

In a survey, psychologists Peter Gray and Gina Riley found that of 232 families who unschooled their kids, 83 percent of the children went on to study at a post-secondary institution:

Almost half of those had either completed a bachelor’s degree or higher, or were currently enrolled in such a program; they attended (or had graduated from) a wide range of colleges, from Ivy League universities to state universities and smaller liberal-arts colleges.

According to KQED, though the path from unschooling to college isn't as streamlined as for kids who go to regular school, it isn't that difficult to tread, either. Aside from a few administrative hurdles, unschooled students didn't face immediate barriers in college:

Getting into college was typically a fairly smooth process for this group; they adjusted to the academics fairly easily, quickly picking up skills such as class note-taking or essay composition; and most felt at a distinct advantage due to their high self-motivation and capacity for self-direction.

Kids who are unschooled pretty much by definition won't get as broad of a baseline education as kids in the traditional school system, though. Unschooling lends itself to deep dives, to kids getting passionately and heavily invested in a sphere of innate interest. One of the main critiques of unschooling, says University Affairs, is that experiential learning doesn't lend itself to the broad range of intellectual pursuits available to the human race. And, says KQED, unschooled kids did report having trouble with math and, as a group, disproportionately favored careers in the "creative arts."

Many of the unschooled kids, however, did follow their passions into technical fields: “half of the men and about 20 percent of the women,” says KQED, went in to fields that required a substantial background in science, technology or math.

“The State of the Birds” assesses health of nation’s birds

Smithsonian Insider

One hundred years after the extinction of the passenger pigeon, the nation’s top bird science and conservation groups have come together to publish The State […]

The post “The State of the Birds” assesses health of nation’s birds appeared first on Smithsonian Insider.

“The Curious Mr. Catesby” Receives 2016 Annual Literature Award

Smithsonian Libraries

Congratulations to Leslie Overstreet! The Catesby Commemorative Trust’s The Curious Mr. Catesby: A “Truly Ingenious” Naturalist Explores New Worlds book has been awarded the 2016 Annual Literature Award by the Council of Botanical and Horticultural Libraries. Leslie, Curator of Natural-History Rare Books in the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History, authored the chapter more »

The post “The Curious Mr. Catesby” Receives 2016 Annual Literature Award appeared first on Smithsonian Libraries Unbound.

“Science Ninjas” Capture Bugs at Camp Discovery

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
by Chris Patrick “Camp Discovery!” shouts Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC) education intern Josie Whelan. “SCIENCE NINJAS!” a dozen 6- to 8-year-old campers respond as they strike ninja-esque poses. This is a callback, used by the three education interns—Henry Lawson, Addie Schlussel, and Whelan—to grab the attention of talkative future first- and second-graders at Camp […]

“Priority!” awarded Thackray Medal

Smithsonian Libraries
A recent book to which Leslie Overstreet, the Smithsonian Libraries curator of natural-history rare books, contributed has been awarded the John Thackray Medal by the Society for the History of Natural History for “significant achievements in the history and bibliography of natural history.” The product of years of research by lead author Edward C. Dickinson, more »

“Pink Noise” May Improve Sleep and Memory in Older Adults

Smithsonian Magazine

Research has shown that deep sleep plays a crucial role in memory formation. As humans age, sleep becomes lighter and more fragmentary, however, which in turn means that older adults get less deep sleep than younger ones. So it isn’t entirely surprising that deprivation has been linked to memory loss among the elderly.

Fortunately, there might be a rather easy fix to this problem. As Amanda MacMillan reports in TIME, a new study suggests that “pink noise” can lull adults into deeper slumbers and help them form stronger memories.

Pink noise is similar to white noise, but while white noise is one continuous sound, pink noise includes high and low frequencies. “[I]t kind of resembles a rush of water,” Phyllis Zee, professor of neurology at Northwestern University and lead author of the study, tells MacMillan. “It’s just noticeable enough that the brain realizes it’s there, but not enough to disturb sleep.”

Zee and a team of researchers at the Northwestern gathered 13 adults who were 60 or older and monitored their sleep in a lab for two nights. On both nights, the participants took a memory test, went to bed while wearing headphones and an electrode cap, and took another memory test in the morning. But unbeknownst to the sleepy subjects, researchers only played pink noise into the headphones on one night.

More specifically, they timed the sounds to match the participants’ slow-wave oscillations. During deep sleep, brain waves slow to about one oscillation per second, compared to about ten oscillations per second during wakefulness, the researchers write in a press release. The algorithm they employed in the study allowed the team to deliver a low burst of pink noise at the “precise moment” that the participants’ slow waves rose—a pattern that is unique to each person. 

The results of the study, published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, found that participants’ slow waves increased after the night of sound stimulation, suggesting that they were getting more deep sleep. And on the morning after hearing pink noise, they performed three times better on memory tests than they did after sleeping without any sound stimulation.

The study was a relatively small one, so further research is needed to confirm its findings, and study how longer-term use of pink noise effects sleep. But as MacMillan reports in TIME, Northwestern has taken steps to patent the researchers’ technology, which seems to have hit upon a way to stimulate slow waves at the right moment. The team hopes to develop an affordable device that people can use at home, from the comfort of their beds.

“Orchids In Classrooms” Turns Sixth-Graders Into Citizen Scientists

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center

By Hannah-Marie Garcia, science writing intern Think back to your early childhood science classes. Was there ever a time you had to watch a plant grow? Your first natural sciences teacher may have used plant growth to explain basic concepts of plant biology. The process is a rewarding learning experience for students to observe their […]

The post “Orchids In Classrooms” Turns Sixth-Graders Into Citizen Scientists appeared first on Shorelines.

“New” 2,000-Year-Old Geoglyph Spotted in Peru

Smithsonian Magazine

Easter Island has its iconic statues. England has Stonehenge. And Peru has its own mysterious modification to the landscape—the Nazca lines. The enormous geoglyphs were made in the desert ground around 2,000 years ago and have long been the subject of speculation. Now, Japanese researchers have discovered an entirely new geoglyph in Nazca, showing how much more there is to learn about the puzzling designs.

Masato Sakai and Jorge Olano of Yamagata University in Japan recently announced the discovery of the 98-foot-long geoglyph, which is thought to represent a mythical animal sticking out its tongue. Its makers seem to have forged it by removing stones with darker colors from the plateau surface to expose whitish ground below. They then piled up the stones to shape the image. It’s in the vicinity of another geoglyph the team discovered in 2011 that shows what they characterize as “a scene of decapitation.”

Imaginary animals and gory scenes may seem like strange things to encounter in the vast pampas of Peru, but they’re all part of the enigma of Nazca. Archaeologists now think that the lines were part of astronomical religious rituals enacted by the pre-Columbian Nazca culture, a group of ancient indigenous Peruvians who lived as farmers and warriors on the desert plains of Peru’s Rio Grande de Nasca. Since the pampas are so untouched by wind and rain, the lines they contain have remained relatively unscathed over thousands of years.

An outline reconstruction of the figure. (Yamagata University)

In a time before planes or satellites, the creation of thousands of geoglyphs that could only be fully appreciated from above was a leap of faith. But in the 1940s, archaeologists began to study the lines from the sky. The lines are now considered one of the world’s most impressive—and baffling—ancient feats.

Their symbolism continues into the 21st century, too: In 2014, they were irreparably damaged by Greenpeace activists looking to make a point about renewable energy. They may be co-opted by modern voices, but the Unesco-protected lines are a mute testament to a religion and culture that is largely lost.

But archaeologists are determined to find out as much as they can about the lines. As the Japan Times reports, Sakai’s team has already discovered over 100 “new” geoglyphs. The lines may be old, but there’s always more to learn.

“Mermaid Ivory” Stirs Controversy Over How Extinct Species Are Studied

Smithsonian Magazine

The Steller’s sea cow was almost extinct by the time German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller first laid eyes on the plump marine mammal. The species that would bear his name once ranged throughout the North Pacific, but by the time of Steller’s visit in 1741, the last population was sequestered around Russia’s Commander Islands. The species was hunted into extinction before the close of the 18th century.

Then, a discovery complicated this classic story of extinction. In 2014, George Mason University biologist Lorelei Crerar and her coauthors announced that a hidden population of Steller’s sea cow bobbed through the waters around St. Lawrence Island, west of the Alaskan coast, up until about 1,000 years ago.

Why this second pocket went extinct wasn’t clear—in their report in Biology Letters, the researchers proposed that a brief uptick in temperatures called the Medieval Warm Period could have made the kelp the marine mammals ate harder to find, or that Inuit hunted them into extinction. Either way, the discovery of this “hidden” population added a new wrinkle to the animal's tragic tale.

Now the study is making waves for a very different reason: It highlights the squishy state of regulations surrounding “mermaid ivory,” the colorful name for the bones of marine mammals carved into sculptures, and what that means for scientific research.

For their work, Crerar and her coauthors used bone specimens bought at knife shows and on Ebay. The bone dealers assured them that the samples came from St. Lawrence Island. The team's initial intention was to detect whether protected marine species were being illegally traded under the banner of mermaid ivory, says study co-author Chris Parsons. Their genetic analysis identified some of the samples as Steller's sea cow, and those bones were dated at about 1,000 years old, which Crerar and Parsons deem a serendipitous result.

But not everyone is sold on the idea that the sea cows inhabited the waters around St. Lawrence Island way back when. In a response article published this month in Biology Letters, marine mammal experts Nicholas Pyenson, James Parham and Jorge Velez-Juarbe question where these critical sea cow bones came from and, more broadly, how commercially purchased specimens are used in studying the past.

“While I certainly hope that the material did come from St. Lawrence Island, we have no basis, given the current facts, to affirm this geographic placement with confidence,” says Pyenson, of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Location is just as important as anatomy or tatters of genes in examining where species used to live. Even though it was not Crerar and colleagues' intention to conduct a paleontological study, Pyenson and his coauthors are dismayed that there is no concrete evidence for where the bone samples came from.

A bone sold as mermaid ivory is stripped of its context and can only give you scant anatomical details, Parham says. “Because the fossil record is so incomplete already, any time we lose attendant data, the science suffers.” Promises from bone dealers are not sufficient, he adds. “In science, you should not really pick and choose which merchant to believe.”

Complicating matters, this species falls through a regulatory loophole.

“The specimens in question fall outside of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, because Steller’s sea cow is extinct. And because these specimens are not technically fossils either, they fall outside of the Paleontological Resources Protection Act,” says Pyenson. That means dealers can legally buy and sell the bones without having to worry much about documenting their origins. And that makes the original study problematic, Pyenson says.

“I think their broad conclusions would be interesting and relevant to a more complex extinction scenario if we did have such traceability," he says. "But what confidence do we have that the isotopic and DNA results can be tracked to actual physical vouchers, given these issues?”

Pyenson and his coauthors are also concerned that the 2014 study grated against the standards of paleontology and other biological disciplines. The bones used in the 2014 study were held in a private collection, which was put in a George Mason University collection last December. That means the original specimens were privately held at the time they were formally described.

When important specimens are in private hands, the owner may deny access to scientists for any reason they like, the trio point out. "And then there’s always the question of what will happen to those specimens beyond the lifetime of the owner,” says Velez-Juarbe of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.

Reiterating that their initial findings were a happenstance that came out of a different project, the authors of the 2014 study dispute these arguments. In a published reply to Pyenson and his colleagues, Crerar says that the samples were not hard to access.

“All 200 of the bones are at George Mason University,” she says, with the exception of five that are currently at the Smithsonian, and she says that other researchers have already examined the collection. And while Crerar would also like to know more about where the bones came from, she has not yet visited St. Lawrence Island and talk to the people who dig the bones from middens.

Parsons adds that he is “dumbfounded by the furor over the samples,” especially because the sea cow samples “are tiny fragments that aren’t really recognizable as bones or carvings.” He likens them to genetic tissue samples, which are not always stored in museum collections.

Still, archiving genetic samples has rapidly become a scientific standard for biologists, and museums and zoos around the world are building huge collections of frozen tissues, says Parham of California State University.

While the tricky nature of mermaid ivory may not be resolved any time soon, there is some hope for resolving the mystery of the St. Lawrence Island sea cows. Middens likely to harbor more sea cow bones have previously been excavated on the islands, and their fully documented contents are now being cared for at museums, say Pyenson, Parham and Velez-Juarbe.

“Could there be Steller’s sea cow already in museum collections at Fairbanks?” Pyenson wonders. “I’m going to go and find out.”

“Lessons Learned from the Civil War” with Eleanor Jones Harvey - Summer Institutes Keynote Address

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Eleanor Jones Harvey, Senior Curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, delivered the keynote address at the 2014 Summer Institutes: Teaching the Humanities through Art. In this talk, Harvey discusses curating her 2012 exhibition, "The Civil War and American Art," and the insights and discoveries she made along the way. Directed to an audience of history and language arts teachers, Harvey discusses the integral role of primary source material to her research, investigates how to “read” a painting, and considers how to engage today’s students with history.

“Hyperlocal, ultraseasonal, uber-healthy, and utterly delicious”: Reviving indigenous food cultures

National Museum of American History

When Chef Sean Sherman began speaking about his experiences growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, he shattered all-too-common stereotypes of indigenous life in 20th-century America. He jokingly noted that some people expect to hear how he hunted buffalo with his slingshot as a kid, but that romanticized myth of American Indian foodways had nothing to do with his work of rediscovering the foods that sustained his ancestors. He shared insights with museum visitors during the “The Power of Place” roundtable discussion, part of the 2018 Food History Weekend: Regions Reimagined.

Four people appear in chairs on stage, a panelChef Sean Sherman speaks on stage at our Smithsonian Food History Weekend

Yes, Sherman and his family hunted wild game, but, for the most part, he ate differently than past generations of Lakota. Like many children growing up on reservations in the second half of the 20th century, Sherman ate non-perishable foods distributed on Indian reservations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). Growing up, he noted: “Our shelves were lined with government-issued canned corn, canned carrots, canned peas, canned salmon, chipped beef, saltines, white flour, and bricks of bright orange commodity cheese.” FDPIR, which began in 1977, contributed to a dramatic shift in the eating habits of communities living on reservations—a shift away from traditional indigenous food practices. That shift contributed to the development of serious health problems and a profound sense of disassociation from Native values. 

Within a few generations of FDPIR’s introduction, knowledge of traditional Lakota foodways at Pine Ridge have all but been forgotten. Sherman is trying to change that. He seeks to empower indigenous communities by reviving their healthful historic foodways. 

 

 

In his adult life, Sherman has re-acquainted himself with foods Lakota people had eaten prior to the introduction of FDPIR. Easier said than done. As Sherman noted, he “couldn’t just go online and order The Joy of Native American Cooking,” referencing Irma Rombauer’s canonical cookbook. Instead, he interviewed his grandparents’ generation, probing their childhood memories of family meals and feasts, while also combing through archives to find descriptions of historic foods of the Lakota.

After many years of research into the food cultures of the Lakota and other indigenous communities, Sherman founded The Sioux Chef in 2014—a catering and food education company in Minneapolis that seeks to revitalize and build awareness of indigenous food systems. Through the Sioux Chef business and cookbook bearing the same name, Sherman is shedding light on the diverse farming, foraging, hunting, and production practices of the Lakota and a diverse array of tribes. He is also creating a pathway through which to strengthen indigenous communities’ food sovereignty.

Chef Sean Sherman cooking in our demonstration kitchen, one hand on a food processor and one hand explainingIn our demonstration kitchen, Chef Sherman prepares duck pemmican

During one of our Food History Weekend live-cooking demonstrations, Sherman shared some of those historic food practices with us by preparing duck and wild rice pemmican (Mag˘áksic˘a na Psíŋ Wasná). The dish features dried duck, preserved with salt and maple sugar, which could be stored for a long time and provide protein when game was less abundant. Sherman noted that like many of the dishes in his cookbook, this one does not include any ingredients brought to North America after European settlement on the continent. That means, no dairy, wheat (or gluten), beef, pork, or cane sugar, among other popular ingredients in many Americans’ diets today (and ones regularly distributed through FDPIR). Instead, the food found in Sherman’s cookbook, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen (2017), relies on flora and fauna indigenous to North America like sea salt, juniper, maple sugar, honey, sumac, maple vinegar, eggs, sunflower oil, wild ginger, and mushrooms.

As Sherman notes in The Sioux Chef, the indigenous diet is “hyperlocal, ultraseasonal, uber-healthy […] most of all, it’s utterly delicious.”

 

 

Don’t be surprised if you start seeing more indigenous eateries, cafes, and restaurants pop up across the United States. In the meantime, try out Sherman’s recipe for duck and wild rice pemmican and watch the recording of the roundtable “The Power of Place” and other conversations from the 2018 Food History Weekend by visiting our website.

A finished dish on a plateChef Sherman’s completed dish

Dr. Ashley Rose Young is the historian of the American Food History Project at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and is also the host of Cooking Up History.

The live cooking demonstrations, as part of Smithsonian Food History Weekend, are generously supported by Hilton, Wegmans Food Markets, Inc., and Sur La Table.

Posted Date: 
Wednesday, December 19, 2018 - 09:00
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“Hyperlocal, ultraseasonal, uber-healthy, and utterly delicious”: Reviving indigenous food cultures

National Museum of American History

When Chef Sean Sherman began speaking about his experiences growing up on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, he shattered all-too-common stereotypes of indigenous life in 20th-century America. He jokingly noted that some people expect to hear how he hunted buffalo with his slingshot as a kid, but that romanticized myth of American Indian foodways had nothing to do with his work of rediscovering the foods that sustained his ancestors. He shared insights with museum visitors during the “The Power of Place” roundtable discussion, part of the 2018 Food History Weekend: Regions Reimagined.

Four people appear in chairs on stage, a panelChef Sean Sherman speaks on stage at our Smithsonian Food History Weekend

Yes, Sherman and his family hunted wild game, but, for the most part, he ate differently than past generations of Lakota. Like many children growing up on reservations in the second half of the 20th century, Sherman ate non-perishable foods distributed on Indian reservations by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as part of the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR). Growing up, he noted: “Our shelves were lined with government-issued canned corn, canned carrots, canned peas, canned salmon, chipped beef, saltines, white flour, and bricks of bright orange commodity cheese.” FDPIR, which began in 1977, contributed to a dramatic shift in the eating habits of communities living on reservations—a shift away from traditional indigenous food practices. That shift contributed to the development of serious health problems and a profound sense of disassociation from Native values. 

Within a few generations of FDPIR’s introduction, knowledge of traditional Lakota foodways at Pine Ridge have all but been forgotten. Sherman is trying to change that. He seeks to empower indigenous communities by reviving their healthful historic foodways. 

 

 

In his adult life, Sherman has re-acquainted himself with foods Lakota people had eaten prior to the introduction of FDPIR. Easier said than done. As Sherman noted, he “couldn’t just go online and order The Joy of Native American Cooking,” referencing Irma Rombauer’s canonical cookbook. Instead, he interviewed his grandparents’ generation, probing their childhood memories of family meals and feasts, while also combing through archives to find descriptions of historic foods of the Lakota.

After many years of research into the food cultures of the Lakota and other indigenous communities, Sherman founded The Sioux Chef in 2014—a catering and food education company in Minneapolis that seeks to revitalize and build awareness of indigenous food systems. Through the Sioux Chef business and cookbook bearing the same name, Sherman is shedding light on the diverse farming, foraging, hunting, and production practices of the Lakota and a diverse array of tribes. He is also creating a pathway through which to strengthen indigenous communities’ food sovereignty.

Chef Sean Sherman cooking in our demonstration kitchen, one hand on a food processor and one hand explainingIn our demonstration kitchen, Chef Sherman prepares duck pemmican

During one of our Food History Weekend live-cooking demonstrations, Sherman shared some of those historic food practices with us by preparing duck and wild rice pemmican (Mag˘áksic˘a na Psíŋ Wasná). The dish features dried duck, preserved with salt and maple sugar, which could be stored for a long time and provide protein when game was less abundant. Sherman noted that like many of the dishes in his cookbook, this one does not include any ingredients brought to North America after European settlement on the continent. That means, no dairy, wheat (or gluten), beef, pork, or cane sugar, among other popular ingredients in many Americans’ diets today (and ones regularly distributed through FDPIR). Instead, the food found in Sherman’s cookbook, The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen (2017), relies on flora and fauna indigenous to North America like sea salt, juniper, maple sugar, honey, sumac, maple vinegar, eggs, sunflower oil, wild ginger, and mushrooms.

As Sherman notes in The Sioux Chef, the indigenous diet is “hyperlocal, ultraseasonal, uber-healthy […] most of all, it’s utterly delicious.”

 

 

Don’t be surprised if you start seeing more indigenous eateries, cafes, and restaurants pop up across the United States. In the meantime, try out Sherman’s recipe for duck and wild rice pemmican and watch the recording of the roundtable “The Power of Place” and other conversations from the 2018 Food History Weekend by visiting our website.

A finished dish on a plateChef Sherman’s completed dish

Dr. Ashley Rose Young is the historian of the American Food History Project at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and is also the host of Cooking Up History.

The live cooking demonstrations, as part of Smithsonian Food History Weekend, are generously supported by Hilton, Wegmans Food Markets, Inc., and Sur La Table.

Posted Date: 
Wednesday, December 19, 2018 - 09:00
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“Hobbits” Disappeared Much Earlier Than Previously Thought

Smithsonian Magazine

The mysterious hominin known as the "Hobbit" died out far earlier than previously thought, scientists have learned. The revised age, published today in the journal Nature, could help resolve, or reignite, controversies over the diminutive fossil’s origins. It also raises some intriguing questions about why Homo floresiensis vanished—and what role our own species might have played in its demise.

When the discovery of 3-foot-tall Homo floresiensis and its grapefruit-sized head was announced in 2004, the tiny hominin’s odd mix of ancient and more modern physical features captured the public's imagination and created controversy among scientists tasked with figuring out exactly what kind of creature the unusual bones represented.  

Excavations on the Indonesian island of Flores have now revealed that Homo floresiensis called Liang Bua cave home between 190,000 and 50,000 years ago, rather than as recently as 12,000 years ago, which was the surprisingly late date previous research had suggested.

The digs, carried out between 2007 and 2014 by many members of the research team that first discovered the fossil, gradually exposed new parts of the cave only to discover that, thanks to eons of erosion, the sediment layer cake under its floor is unevenly distributed. As teams excavated from the cave’s mouth back toward the middle, it became evident that older deposits had been eroded prior to 20,000 years ago and gradually covered again by new sediments since.

Those younger sediments confused the original dating efforts. Scientists incorrectly associated the Homo floresiensis fossils with the more recent layer, says co-author Thomas Sutikna of the University of Wollongong in Australia, when it’s now clear that they were actually buried in the older layer of sediment.

The bones themselves were also reevaluated for this study with uranium-series dating, which charts the decay of uranium in bones to determine how long they’ve been buried.

Most theories of Homo floresiensis origins suggest they are the descendants of an early hominin dispersal. Co-author Matt Tocheri, of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, says there are two main possibilities.

“The first is that Homo floresiensis is the descendant of Asian Homo erectus, and if this is true, then it implies the smaller body and brain size of Homo floresiensis probably evolved in isolation on the island. The alternative," he says, "is that Homo floresiensis is the descendant of another pre-modern species of Homo that may have been smaller-bodied and smaller-brained to begin with when it reached the island.”

Tocheri notes that the new ages won’t do much to move the needle from one of these options to the other—only the discovery of more fossils will do that. “If there was a book that chronicled the entire evolutionary history of Homo floresiensis, then it would be like we have only a few tattered and torn pages with the rest of the pages missing but hopefully not lost forever,” he says.

Some scientists, though a distinct minority, maintain that Homo floresiensis isn’t a new species at all but an abnormal, dwarfed member of our own Homo sapiens suffering from some ancient pathology like cretinism, microcephaly or Down’s syndrome.

Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum, London argues that the new dates do impact the feasibility of this scenario—and in fact make it much less likely. “They would seem to fatally undermine remaining claims that the ‘Hobbit’ fossils belong to diseased modern humans, since the material now dates beyond any modern human specimens known from the region,” says Stringer, who wasn’t affiliated with the research. 

Was There a Human Hand in the Hobbits’ Extinction?

Adding to the Hobbit’s intrigue was the relatively recent age originally assigned to the fossil, which had pegged it as the last known human species to vanish from the ancient world—excepting our own, of course.

The dates made it possible, though not certain—given the island’s remote location—that our two species coexisted for some significant part of those 40,000 years, which would have been a unique arrangement between modern humans and earlier human species. “I wondered how [Homo floresiensis] could have survived for so long after the arrival of Homo sapiens in the region at least 50,000 years ago, when other forms of human, such as the Neanderthals and Denisovans, had physically disappeared long before,” notes Stringer.

However, it’s still unclear if the Hobbits survived long enough to encounter modern humans at all. The earliest evidence of humans on Flores—in the remote string of islands stretching east of Java—doesn’t appear until some 11,000 years ago. But modern humans were on some of the region’s other islands by 50,000 years ago and had even reached Australia by that time. Their impact there, along with the apparent timing of the Hobbit’s extinction, suggests our own species could have possibly played a dark role in the disappearance of the Hobbits. If, in fact, the two ever met.

“At least for Australia, the weight of evidence points to humans playing a decisive role in the extinction of the giant endemic animals or ‘megafauna’ that once roamed the continent,” says co-author Richard “Bert” Roberts of the University of Wollongong in Australia. “So was Homo floresiensis another casualty of the spread of our species? This is certainly a possibility that we take seriously, but solid evidence is needed in order to demonstrate it. It will definitely be a major focus of further research.”

Homo floresiensis wasn't the only unusual inhabitant of Flores, and, interestingly, many of those creatures also seem to have vanished around the same time. Shifting climates or catastrophic volcanism could have plausibly played roles in these extinctions instead of, or in addition to, the arrival of modern humans, Tocheri notes.

“Theoretically the loss of pygmy Stegodon [an extinct form of elephant] could have caused a disastrous reaction stretching through the food chain,” he adds. “Pygmy Stegodon is the only large-bodied herbivore known on Flores during the Late Pleistocene, and it was clearly a primary food source for the vultures, giant marabou storks and Komodo dragons, which all disappeared from the island at roughly the same time as Homo floresiensis. If something happened to cause the pygmy Stegodon population to crash, then it more than likely would have had an adverse effect on these other species.”

More evidence will be needed if we’re ever to untangle what actually happened.

Even if modern humans did help force the Hobbits into extinction, Chris Stringer raises the tantalizing possibility that, like Neanderthals or Denisovans, they may not have vanished entirely.

“At least some of those other forms of humans did not go completely extinct since their DNA lives on in us today through ancient interbreeding between the archaic and early modern populations,” Stringer explains. “This leaves open the fascinating possibility that even H. floresiensis might have contributed some of its DNA to living groups in the region, if there was at least a short overlap between floresiensis and sapiens about 50,000 years ago.”

“Hear My Voice”: Smithsonian identifies 130-year-old recording as Alexander Graham Bell’s voice

Smithsonian Insider

The inventions of Alexander Graham Bell—most famously the telephone but also methods of recording sound—have allowed people to hear each other’s voices for more than […]

The post “Hear My Voice”: Smithsonian identifies 130-year-old recording as Alexander Graham Bell’s voice appeared first on Smithsonian Insider.

“Great Cold Spot” Discovered on Jupiter

Smithsonian Magazine

When you think of Jupiter, it’s likely you see red—the planet’s iconic Big Red Spot, that is. But it turns out that the gigantic red gyre isn’t the only great spot on Jupiter. As the Associated Press reports, scientists have found another spot on the gas giant: one that’s big, cold, and high up on the planet’s north pole.

The Great Cold Spot, as it’s being called, was spotted, as it were, by researchers using the Very Large Telescope. Located in Chile’s dark, high-altitude Atacama Desert, the telescope array is the world’s most cutting-edge optical instrument and gives scientists a better-than-ever chance to study the night sky.

With the help of that mammoth window to space, they were able to make observations of a previously unknown region at the top of Jupiter. They describe the spot in a new paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

The region isn’t a spot per se; it’s weather. Like the Great Red Spot, which is thought to be the product of a massive ongoing storm in Jupiter’s violent, gaseous atmosphere, the Great Cold Spot seems to be a weather system. Like its cousin, it’s really big—nearly 15,000 miles in longitude and 7,500 miles in latitude. That makes it bigger than Earth. And it's extremely cold compared to the rest of the atmosphere.

Scientists have been watching the spot for years without knowing it. When they compared the Very Large Telescope array’s analysis of the planet’s hydrogen—thought to fuel the planet’s crazy weather—with data from NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii, they realized that the colder temperatures at the planet’s poles are pretty consistent.

The spot can’t be seen with the human eye. Rather, it’s visible on infrared readings as a kind of dark oval on top of Jupiter’s bright upper atmosphere. Though it seems to have shifted dramatically over the years—and is now thought to have existed since the planet was formed—it’s always in the same spot. That’s because Jupiter’s storms don’t have an actual planetary surface to slow them down.

Scientists can’t see what’s beneath the planet’s swirling, gaseous atmosphere, but their best guess is that it’s nothing like Earth, where all of the gas and dust that formed the planet eventually settled down to into things like land and water. Jupiter hasn’t been that lucky—its vortices appear to get continually fueled by radiation that sucks its surrounding atmosphere into it again and again. And the data collected by researchers suggests that the just-discovered cooler spot exists thanks to energy from Jupiter’s polar auroras.

Now, says the research team in a press release, they’ll look for other features in the upper atmosphere. They’ll have help: NASA’s Juno spacecraft is swirling around the planet as we speak, and researchers could use the orbiter’s data to learn even more about the Great Cold Spot and other storms. Get ready to update your mental map of the gas giant as new data comes in.

“Explore the Four” for Museum Day Live! 2016

Smithsonian Libraries

Join the Smithsonian Libraries and the wider Smithsonian community as we explore careers in museums, libraries and research through Museum Day Live! 2016. Special events and opportunities will be held throughout the Smithsonian on March 12, 2016, as well as nation-wide through participating institutions. According to the Museum Day Live! website, “held during Women’s History more »

The post “Explore the Four” for Museum Day Live! 2016 appeared first on Smithsonian Libraries Unbound.

“Every one knows what a bird is.” Or do they?

Smithsonian Libraries

This post was written by intern Becca Greenstein. Becca is currently pursuing her Master’s in Library Science at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.  She has always had a passion for research, teaching/helping others and seeing the direct impact of her work, and collaboration across departments and institutions (and, of course, reading), so library school has more »

The post “Every one knows what a bird is.” Or do they? appeared first on Smithsonian Libraries Unbound.

“Death Star” Shreds, Swallows Dwarf Planet

Smithsonian Insider

It seems the stuff of science fiction, but astronomers have found a real-life “Death Star” that shredded a rocky planet and is swallowing the dusty remains.

The post “Death Star” Shreds, Swallows Dwarf Planet appeared first on Smithsonian Insider.

“Cutie Pie” type radiation survey meter

National Museum of American History
Background on “Cutie Pie” type radiation survey meter, Object ID 1994.0125.30.1 and alternate ionization chamber, Object ID 1994.0125.30.2

A Cutie Pie type of meter, such as Object ID 1994.0125.30.1, is a hand-held ionization chamber instrument.

As defined by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), a survey meter is any portable radiation detection instrument especially adapted for inspecting an area or individual to establish the existence and amount of radioactive material present. The survey meter typically measures the amount of radiation present and provides this information on a numerical display in units of counts per minute, counts per second, or microroentgen (µR) or microrem (µrem) per hour. The most commonly used hand-held survey meters are the scintillation counter, which is used in the measurement of alpha, beta and neutron particles; the Geiger counter, widely used for the measurement of alpha, beta and gamma levels; and the ion chamber, which is used for beta, gamma and X-ray measurements.

For background on the development of early survey meters and their nicknames, go to:

https://www.orau.org/ptp/collection/surveymeters/surveymeters.htm

The ionization chamber is the simplest of all gas-filled radiation detectors, and is widely used for the detection and measurement of certain types of ionizing radiation; X-rays, gamma rays and beta particles. Conventionally, the term "ionization chamber" is used exclusively to describe those detectors which collect all the charges created by direct ionization within the gas through the application of an electric field. It only uses the discrete charges created by each interaction between the incident radiation and the gas, and does not involve the gas multiplication mechanisms used by other radiation instruments, such as the Geiger-Müller counter or the proportional counter. Ion chambers have a good uniform response to radiation over a wide range of energies and are the preferred means of measuring high levels of gamma radiation. They are widely used in the nuclear power industry, research labs, radiography, radiobiology, and environmental monitoring.

Detailed description of Object ID no. 1994.0125.30.1, Cutie Pie type radiation survey meter by Chicago Nuclear Corp., Model 2586.

(One of the accompanying photographs provided by donor, Prof. Herbert Clark, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.)

Gray-painted cast aluminum bread loaf-shaped housing, sitting on similarly made 'shoe' surmounting integral pistol grip. Inserted into front of housing is black cylindrical ionization chamber, 8cm (3 in) diam., ca 21 cm (8½ in) long, with window at front end covered by white plastic cap. The chamber has a multi-pin base that plugs into the main unit. The plastic cap contains a calibration source. At the back of housing, facing operator, is 'rate' ammeter. Instrument stands on butt of grip and on two chrome-plated 5 mm diam. wire legs, in form of square loops, that may be rotated around their insertions in front and back of 'shoe' into retracted positions alongside housing. Total length 34 cm (13¼ in), width 8 cm (3¼ in), height 23 cm (9 in). Painted on side of housing: "nuclear-chicago/ Model 2586". Label adhered on bottom of base: "Mod 2586/ Ser 1384/ nuclear-chicago/ Corporation/ Des Plaines, Illinois". RPI Prof. Herbert Clark (letter 1994.5.4) used this instrument during the 1960s.

Detailed description of Object ID no. 1994.0125.30.2, Ionization chamber for Cutie Pie type radiation survey meter .30.1

An alternate, interchangeable, 8 cm (3 1/8 in) diam., black cylindrical ionization chamber with incorporated electrometer tube for extending sensitivity of survey meter .30.1 by a factor of 100. On the cylinder is a two-position switch knob over a label that reads: “P24M / INTEGRATING CHAMBER / RANGE / X0.01 X1 / DO NOT USE WITH X100 / PULL TO REMOVE”. The chamber also has a detachable plastic cap that contains a calibration source.

For full details on the Nuclear-Chicago Model 2586 radiation survey meter and related devices, see Rick Maurer’s comprehensive, web-based National Radiation Instrument Catalog at:

http://national-radiation-instrument-catalog.com/new_page_42.htm

“Baby Hands” on Rock Paintings Were Probably Lizard Prints

Smithsonian Magazine

Reconstructing the past isn’t easy, and it is even more challenging for events that date back millennia. This search for evidence can take researchers to strange places—and for anthropologist Emmanuelle Honoré and her colleagues, that meant measuring baby hands in a hospital.

Though the methods are slightly unusual, the researchers uncovered something curious: The tiny Stone Age handprints stenciled inside an Egyptian cave were likely not from small humans, but rather lizards, Kristin Romey reports for National Geographic.

Honoré and her team, who recently published their results in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, analyzed small handprints at Wadi Sūra II, a rock shelter in the Western Desert of Egypt. Discovered in 2002, the shelter is also known as “the cave of the beasts” after the menagerie of creatures depicted on its walls.

The sandstone cave is filled with mysterious paintings and markings that seem to pre-date animal domestication, including lots of outlines of human hands that are at least 6,000 years old. Among these handprints, 13 appear to be left by very small humans. These were the first such stenciled hands found in the Sahara.

But when Honoré looked at the paintings, she began to doubt that the handprints were tracings of Stone Age babies. So she teamed up with researchers to get measurements of newborns and pre-term babies at the neonatal unit of a French hospital. This comparison showed that indeed, the cave prints were not human.

Honoré then moved to other candidates, from monkeys to lizards. Ultimately, the lizards won. 

“The most compelling comparisons are found among reptiles,” writes Honoré. Likely candidates include young crocodiles or desert monitor lizards—an animal that is well-represented in other Saharan rock art.

But the case isn't closed just yet. “We are not sure if we will get a definitive answer,” Honoré told News.com.au’s Debra Killalea, “but our first results are very convincing.”

The team speculates that the paintings may have included the prints of important religious or cultural symbols like the lizards. But Honoré doesn't want to speculate too much on the meaning, reports Romey.

"We have a modern conception that nature is something that humans are separate from," she tells Romey. "But in this huge collection of images we can detect that humans are just part of a bigger natural world."

Researchers may never know exactly what made the prints, but identifying them as reptile gives the cave of the beasts new meaning—and fresh intrigue.

‘Young Blood’ Transfusions Are Ineffective and Dangerous, FDA Warns

Smithsonian Magazine

Transfusions of blood plasma are used to treat a host of medical conditions, including burns, surgery-induced blood loss, and disorders that prevent a person’s blood from clotting properly. But as Live Science’s Rachael Rettner reports, the Food and Drug Administration has raised the alarm about companies that purport to use blood plasma—specifically the blood of young donors—to combat the effects of aging and several severe ailments.

In a harshly worded statement, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb called out “unscrupulous actors” who claim that infusions of “young blood” can treat conditions ranging from “normal aging and memory loss to serious diseases like dementia, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease or post-traumatic stress disorder.”

“There is no proven clinical benefit of infusion of plasma from young donors to cure, mitigate, treat, or prevent these conditions,” Gottlieb said, “and there are risks associated with the use of any plasma product.”

Plasma is the vital blood component that carries nutrients, hormones and proteins throughout the body. Donations of this vital liquid are sometimes called the “gift of life” because of plasma’s critical use in the medical field. But even in approved contexts, there are risks that come with blood transfusions, including circulatory overload, allergic reactions and, less commonly, the transmission of infections. According to Gottlieb, young blood infusions are particularly dangerous because they involve the transmission of large volumes of blood, which in turn heightens the risk of adverse side effects.

In addition to their potential dangers, young blood infusions don’t seem to work. As Gizmodo’s Ed Cara points out, clinical trials have investigated whether blood from young donors can be helpful in treating conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. But to date, Gottlieb says, “there is no compelling clinical evidence on its efficacy, nor is there information on appropriate dosing for treatment of the conditions for which these products are being advertised.”

The FDA didn’t mention any companies by name, but one that has been drawing attention of late is Ambrosia Health, a San Francisco start-up founded by Stanford Medical School graduate Jesse Karmazin. According to Vox’s Chavie Lieber, the company has locations across the United States, and charges $8,000 for a liter of blood drawn from people between the ages 16 and 25. In the wake of the FDA’s caution, Ambrosia announced that it has “ceased patient treatments.”

The thinking behind young blood transfusions stems from a somewhat gruesome experiment conducted in the 1950s, when a Cornell researcher connected the circulatory systems of a young and old mouse, according to New Scientist’s Helen Thomson. The scientist, Clive McCay, found that the old mouse’s cartilage subsequently looked younger than would be expected. More recent research has found that blood from young mice seems to rejuvenate the skeletal stem cells and livers of older mice, and even reverse heart decline in aging mice.

But some researchers involved in this research say that their studies do not lend support to the use of young blood infusions in humans. Irina Conboy, a University of California, Berkeley scientist involved in a 2005 study, told Business Insider’s Erin Brodwin that the positive effects she and her colleagues observed could stem from the fact that the mice were sharing not only blood, but also internal organs.

“When old and young mice are sutured together they share organs too — including their kidneys and all the important filtering organs,” Conboy said. “Imagine you had a new liver. You’d probably see benefits too.”

Interpreting the mice studies as a basis for human young blood infusions, Conboy added, is both incorrect and dangerous. Such transfusions, she told Brodwin, “quite likely could inflict bodily harm.”

‘Our Bodies, Ourselves,’ the Revolutionary Feminist Health Book, Will No Longer Print New Editions

Smithsonian Magazine

Since it was first published in the early 1970s, Our Bodies, Ourselves has been offering women frank information about their sexual and reproductive health. But as Neda Ulaby reports for NPR, financial troubles have forced the organization that publishes the book to cease producing updated versions of Our Bodies, Ourselves, marking the end of an era for a revolutionary feminist text.

In a letter announcing the change, Bonnie Shepard, chair of the Our Bodies, Ourselves organization, revealed that the group will stop publishing "updated print and digital health information." Our Bodies, Ourselves has been consistently revised over the decades, with help from some 300 experts on health and contraceptive technology, according to Stephanie Ebbert of the Boston Globe. Each book costs around $250,000 to produce, but the organization’s recent fundraising efforts have not been successful.

“We came to the painful conclusion, after several years of struggling financially, that we don’t have the resources and infrastructure to continue our main programs using paid staff,” Shepard writes in her announcement.

The ninth and last edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves was published in 2011, according to the organization's timeline. Excerpts from the book will continue to be available on the group’s website.

The story of Our Bodies, Ourselves begins in May of 1969, when 12 women met during a women’s liberation conference at Emmanuel College in Boston. They formed what was originally known as the “Doctor’s Group”—later it would be called the Boston Women’s Health Collective— where they discussed their research into women’s health.

The original founding members of Our Bodies Ourselves (Formerly Boston Women's Health Book Collective) (Our Bodies, Ourselves)

In 1970, the collective published Women and Their Bodies, a 193-page newsprint booklet that sought to empower women with vital information about their health.

Women and Their Bodies calmly dismantled taboos surrounding women’s sexuality and anatomy, offering non-judgmental discussions of topics like pregnancy, birth control and abortion. At the time it was first published, neither birth control nor abortion had been legalized for all citizens of the United States.

In 1971, Women and Their Bodies was republished as Our Bodies, Ourselves by New England Free Press. The work, priced at 40 cents, quickly sold 250,000 copies. In 1973, the first commercial edition of Our Bodies, Ourselves was published by Simon & Schuster. Since then, the book has been translated into 31 languages and sold 4 million copies.

The book has struggled, however, to find a foothold in the internet era, which has made many reliable websites available to young women looking to learn more about their bodies. And so, officials say, the time has come for Our Bodies, Ourselves to shift its focus away from publishing. According to Shepard, the organization’s volunteer board and founders will now “focus their advocacy on health policy, in alliance with other organizations, efforts led by incoming board of directors chair, Judy Norsigian.

But that doesn't mean Our Bodies, Ourselves won't be missed.

"I feel such love and gratitude for all that OBOS and its amazing book has given us," one commenter wrote under Shephard's announcement. "For me at least, this book was the original roadmap that connected women, health, education and power. It’s been by my side for a very long time, like a good friend."

(Our Bodies, Ourselves)

‘Bouncing’ Baby Orca Spotted Among Endangered Population

Smithsonian Magazine

It has been a grim few years for southern resident orcas, which dwell in the waters off Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. Their numbers have declined dramatically as they struggle to find food, and in the face of dismal calf survival rates, experts worry that the population won’t be able to recover. But last week, a glimmer of hope emerged when a seemingly healthy baby orca was spotted frolicking amid one of the southern resident pods.

According to the Center for Whale Research (CWR), a Washington non-profit that monitors the southern residents, the new calf came to the attention of researchers after Seattle TV stations aired footage of groups of orcas near Puget Sound and “discerning viewers were able to see a very small whale among them.” Sure enough, when a CWR team was dispatched to investigate, the researchers could see a little orca swimming with the region’s “L” pod. (The other two southern resident social groups are known as “J” and “K.”) The mother of the new baby is a 31-year-old orca called L77, and the baby has been dubbed L124.

“The calf appeared to be about 3 weeks old,” the researchers wrote in a summary of the encounter, adding that it was “bouncing around” the other orcas. The calf’s sex is not known at this time, but Harrison Mooney of the Vancouver Sun reports that experts are hoping it is a female so it can help replenish the flailing southern resident population.

With the birth of the new calf, the southern residents now number 75—a welcome development, to be sure, but the population is still critically endangered. In 1995, there were 98 southern residents; in 2011, there were 89, and the orcas’ numbers have continued to drop. Their future is imperiled by a number of factors, including toxins in the water and rumbling from ship traffic, which can interfere with orcas’ ability to communicate about prey through echolocation. But a major threat pushing the animals towards extinction is a decline in Chinook salmon, the whales’ primary food source, due to habitat destruction and intense commercial fishing.

Without enough available food, southern resident orcas have been starving to death. According to the CBC’s Bethany Lindsay, researchers expect that two more whales will die of starvation by summer.

The fate of the new baby is also far from certain. Around 40 percent of calves do not survive past the first few years, according to the CWR, and southern resident orcas have particularly struggled to keep their young alive. Over the past three years, no babies born to the population have survived—a concerning reality that came to national attention last August, when a southern resident orca named Tahlequah pushed her dead calf through the waters of Puget Sound for 17 days.

L77, the mother of the new baby, has had two other calves: one, born in 2010, did not survive past its first year, but a female born in 2012 is still alive. Only time can tell how baby L124 will fare, but CWR founding director Ken Balcomb tells Lynda V. Mapes of the Seattle Times that the calf appears healthy. And so the appearance of the little orca, he says, is “great news.”

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