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"10 Free Hours!" Marketing and the World Wide Web in the 1990s

National Museum of American History
A floppy disk advertising AOL: It's free! It's easy! It's fun.Remember these?

Getting free stuff in the mail can be exciting, especially if the stuff that’s free is new and novel. On the other hand, it can be frustrating to have unsolicited stuff pouring into your mailbox. From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, households across the United States received promotional disks in the mail from online service providers. These mailings contained free floppy disks (and later CD-ROMs) for software that provided access to the World Wide Web (WWW), a browser-based application for connecting to the internet made available to ordinary consumers in the early 1990s. Disks in flashy packaging with eye-catching slogans hawked several free hours of web browsing to entice newcomers to the online experience.

The museum’s Computing Collection contains examples of these direct-to-consumer mailings of web browsing software. America Online (AOL) is well represented in our collection, but we also have disks from CompuServe, Prodigy, and Global Network Navigator.

Multiple rectangular cardboard boxes. They're colorful with advertising.A group of mailings from several online service providers in the museum's Computing Collection.

AOL was notorious for aggressive direct-to-consumer marketing campaigns, as the company competed with other providers to get more consumers online, browsing the web, and paying to access it. Why did AOL opt for this aggressive and undifferentiated approach to gaining more clientele? The newness of browsing the web, joining chat rooms, and sending and receiving electronic mail were mediated by desktop computers outfitted with bulky monitors. To a consumer unfamiliar with computing technology in the early 1990s, gaining access to a personal computer and experiencing the dial-up process of connecting to the web were far from trivial activities. AOL’s “bundled solutions” offered a one-stop portal on a user-friendly interface at a time when more discriminating consumers could instead purchase separate providers, search portals, news sites, and map providers in an à-la-carte fashion. So how do you get a population unfamiliar with the experience of connecting to and browsing the web to buy into it? AOL’s approach amounted to bombarding consumers with promotional material from several avenues.

In addition to shipping disks to mailboxes across the country, AOL distributed disks as part of promotional sample packages at Blockbuster Video and placed them at stadium seats at NASCAR races, at the Super Bowl, at seats on American Airlines commuter flights, and even in flash-frozen packages for Omaha Steaks!

Jan Brandt was the mastermind behind the AOL marketing strategy. In an interview conducted by Brian McCullough for the Internet History Podcast, Brandt reflected on the marketing tactics she developed throughout the 1990s at AOL. “At that time floppies had value," Brandt said. "They weren’t cheap. If you went into the store, they probably cost 10 or 20 bucks for a 10-pack. So the fact that you got a floppy disk in the mail for free, it felt like it had some value.”

The mass mailing campaigns were effective in reaching households across the United States, but not without complaints from recipients who considered the unsolicited mail unwelcome. Over the mid to late 1990s, criticism of AOL grew in part because of the carpet-bombing method of advertising—as well as connectivity issues from enrolling too many users in a short period of time and the company’s sale of customer e-mail addresses.

A closer look at the packaging of the disks provides a window into AOL’s target markets, imagined users, and promises to its customers. One AOL mailing features a man in a business suit, tearing apart his white buttoned shirt to reveal a blue T-shirt bearing the AOL logo. The slogan at the bottom reads, “Experience the POWER of America Online!” Playing on the superhero subtext, the promotional material suggests that the target consumer was a white man who might work a routine office job by day and harness the power of the World Wide Web by night.

A folder containing a floppy disk. On the cover a man in business attire pulls open his suit to reveal an AOL tee. The text reads "Experience the Power of America Online Pop this FREE software in your computer for 10 free hours online!"The still-unopened cardboard envelope encloses a 3 ½ inch floppy disk containing AOL Version 2.5 for Windows, 1994-1995.

Another example from AOL appeals to the transformative potential of the internet, promising more knowledge, prosperity, and happiness to its users. It also emphasizes the ease with which one can connect, simply by inserting a disk—a novel activity for amateur computer users. “If you want to be more capable, powerful, connected, knowledgeable, productive, prosperous, and happier,” the mailing reads, “Just insert this disk!” It’s that easy. Just point, click, and connect . . . the more hours the better!

A cardboard folder with a floppy disk in it. The text reads "If you want to be more capable powerful connected knowledgeable productive prosperous and happier just insert this disk"A mailing from America Online Version 2.5, 1994–1995.

The novelty of receiving a computer disk for free in the mail was one thing, but being able to put the free disk to use was another. In the early 1990s, when the World Wide Web was in its infancy, only about 15% of households in the United States owned a personal computer. According to a study from the U.S. Department of Labor, by 1997, that figure rose to about thirty-five percent. Despite the steep rise in computer ownership over much of that decade, many people did not own their own computers. Folks who didn’t have a computer in the home could choose to access their e-mail and browse the web at a local library or a web café. While many promotional software mailings were never opened, the carpet-bombing technique paid off, as AOL became the largest service provider by 2000.

AOL’s direct-to-consumer mailings were phased out in 2006 as organizational and internet infrastructures evolved, along with evolving architectures of personal computing devices. In the last 30 or so years, the promotional mailing landscape has also changed, as our virtual inboxes get flooded with e-mails for online deals and other offers. Whether you’re excited about or frustrated by getting free stuff in the mail unsolicited, AOL’s legendary campaign maintains a special place in the history of the World Wide Web, as well as in the history of American marketing.

Alana Staiti is a curator in the Division of Medicine and Sciences.

The Computer Oral History Collection in the Archives Center at NMAH contains interviews with several notable figures in computing history, including Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, and Marc Andreessen, founder of Mosaic.

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Friday, May 24, 2019 - 04:45
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"Expand the Pie Before You Divvy It Up"

Smithsonian Magazine

"One of the things I've learned is, this is like jazz. It's improvised. There's no written score." William Ury is surprisingly relaxed as he tosses off these observations about the process of negotiation to Smithsonian writer Doug Stewart. Ury is in a hotel lobby at The Hague, awaiting the arrival of a delegation from Chechnya, so that he and his team can mediate peace talks between them and a Russian delegation. And already, there are a few wrinkles word has just reached Ury that the Chechens didn't want to use their Russian passports, causing problems on entry into the Netherlands; and now they're protesting their hotel accommodations.

But, as Ury says, it's all part of the improvisation, and he has had a lot of practice. Ury has been running negotiation seminars, studying how various cultures handle conflict and helping to mediate international disputes since 1981, when he and Roger Fisher wrote Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. Dubbed "the bible of negotiation," the book skyrocketed to best seller lists around the world two million copies in 21 languages, and counting. The brand of negotiation they preach, which they call "principled negotiation," emphasizes the process of seeking common interests with the adversary rather than staking out positions and then painstakingly narrowing the gap.

It sounds good on paper, but how does it work in practice? To find out, writer Doug Stewart traveled to The Hague to witness Ury and his negotiating team in action at the International Peace Palace. From his vantage point inside the negotiating room, Stewart describes down to the smallest nuance the unfolding roller coaster ride of emotional outbursts, deafening silences and eventually fleeting moments of real communication.

"Facing Each Other: Third World and Feminist Art History" lecture

Archives of American Art
Lecture : 4 p. : typescript

Four page typescript lecture titled "Facing Each Other: Third World and Feminist Art History," delivered at Four Seasons Hotel in Houston, TX.

"Family Of The Sun" - The Planets of Our Solar System in Song

National Air and Space Museum
This video was displayed in the "Exploring The Planets" exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum until 2006. It consists of children's art with accompanying "Family of the Sun" lyrics sung to the tune of "The Farmer in the Dell". Families and school groups enjoy singing along to the "Family of the Sun" as a way to learn the planets of our Solar System. This video was produced before Pluto was re-designated a dwarf planet in 2006. The video was removed from the Museum exhibition, but new lyrics were prepared to reflect Pluto's changed status. If you would like to sing "Family of the Sun," we suggest using the following updated lyrics: The Family of the Sun, Its planets number eight, Plus other rocky, icy worlds That we appreciate. Mercury is hot and Mercury is small. Mercury has no atmosphere. It's just a rocky ball. Chorus: The Family of the Sun, Its planets number eight, Plus other rocky, icy worlds That we appreciate. Venus has thick clouds That hide what is below. The air is foul, the ground is hot. It rotates very "slow." Chorus We love the Earth, our home, Its oceans and its trees. We eat its food. We breathe its air, So no pollution, please. Chorus Mars is very red. It's also dry and cold. Some day you might visit Mars If you are really bold. Great Jupiter is big. We've studied it a lot. We found that is has many moons and a big red spot. Chorus Saturn has great rings. We wondered what they were. Now we know they're rocks and ice that we saw as a blur. With atmospheres that swirl, & wispy white clouds too, Uranus and Neptune are so cold that you'd turn blue. Chorus Pluto's small and cold. It has an icy face. We call it a dwarf planet now, But its still quite a place. Chorus

"Hidden Brain" Podcast Will Make You Think Twice About Your Unconscious Mind

Smithsonian Magazine

Why did I buy that set of steak knives I don't even need? Which online restaurant reviews can I trust? How come my number-loving friend opted out of AP math courses in high school?

These are the types of questions that social scientists tackle every day, trying to tease apart the complex and sometimes unexpected reasons humans do what they do. In 2005, journalist Shankar Vedantam reported a story for The Washington Post in which he explored unconscious bias and the social scientists working to understand it through implicit association tests. He became so fascinated by the influence of the unconscious mind on human behavior that he decided to dive further into the topic in a book called The Hidden Brain.

Vedantam then joined NPR as a science correspondent in 2011, and his radio reports on human behavior and social science quickly gained a loyal following. Now those listeners and podcast fanatics everywhere can hear more from Vedantam about the role the unconscious mind plays in their behavior in a new NPR podcast, aptly called Hidden Brain.

The first episode of the podcast drops on September 22, and a sneak peek is out now. We spoke with Vedantam to learn more about it. (The following has been edited for length.)

What is Hidden Brain?

The Hidden Brain has many different incarnations. If your question is specifically about the podcast, the goal of Hidden Brain really is to connect people’s everyday lived experiences with interesting and rigorous science. I think the great joy that I have in this work is finding moments when I can connect work that is rigorous and scientifically solid with the kind of experiences that people have in everyday life—the way they park their car, the way they read a restaurant review—and to basically say, look, there are ways in which science can illumine the life that you lead and help you think about your world with curiosity and freshness.

Where did you come up with the term?

So "hidden brain" is a term that I coined as I was writing my book a few years ago. It’s really a metaphor to describe the many things that happen in our minds that lie outside of our conscious awareness. And I think over the last 10 or 20 years there’s just been this explosion of research, empirically grounded rigorous research, that suggests that in everyday life, many of our perceptions and judgments and decisions are shaped by factors that lie outside of conscious awareness. Some of these hidden things are actually accessible if we try very hard to pay attention to them. But others are completely hidden and we actually have no ability to get at them even if we try very hard consciously.

What are some examples of topics you will cover in the podcast?

One of our early episodes, for example, is going to look at a pattern in communication where people are conversing with one another, but really talking past one another. This idea is called switch tracking. A couple of episodes later, we’re going to look at this idea that’s being explored in a lot of psychological research known as stereotype threat, which is this idea that if you believe that the world holds certain stereotypes about you, your concern that you’re the victim of those stereotypes is going to shape how you behave and how you see the world.

The tagline of the show is "A conversation about life’s unseen patterns." Can you give an example of an unseen pattern?

A central premise of Hidden Brain really is that once you identify these unconscious and hidden forces acting on us, it gives you some power and agency to actually do something about it. You can actually choose to make different choices once you’re aware that you’re being biased or once you’re aware that your judgments and perceptions are being subtly shaped by these factors that lie outside of your awareness.

Are there any studies or topics that your listeners have loved or hated?

I did a story a couple of years ago that connected the work of the philosopher Albert Camus with new research into why people get stuck in boring jobs. Camus had written this famous essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, about the man who rolls the boulder up and down the hill for all eternity. And the idea is Camus was dealing with this question of how we deal with drudgery and monotony and boredom in our lives, and how we actually should address this from a philosophical standpoint.

The new research was looking at why is it that many people are stuck in jobs that they find dissatisfying and boring … and it found that people sometimes choose occupations and professions and activities that are boring because they’re unwilling to take a chance on activities that might be more fulfilling, because they actually might carry more risk. And this idea of connecting the psychological research into people’s choices and their professions with this philosophical idea that Camus explained many decades ago really struck a nerve.

How much trust should people place in social science and human behavior studies?

I think there have been a lot of concerns raised in recent years about the accuracy and the reproducibility of scientific studies. Many of these concerns have been raised about studies that are in the social sciences, although I don’t think the social sciences are unique in terms having this problem. And the way that I think about many of these studies is I think of it is as being that each study sort of gives us a new picture to understand how the world works.

So when humans first looked up and saw the moon, they had theories about what the moon was. And several hundred years later, when we built telescopes and could look at the moon more closely, we could see different aspects of the moon that we hadn’t seen before, and we came up with new models of how the moon works. And then eventually when we sent satellites into space and astronauts to land on the moon, we saw the moon up close. Now each of these versions gives us a more accurate version of reality. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the previous version was wrong, it just means that it’s a different map.

What have you learned about yourself from reporting on human behavior?

I think my interest in the hidden brain stems from the fact that I think of myself as being a very rational and very deliberate person. I think I was drawn to it first of all because it seems so alien to me, so alien to the way I thought I lived my life. So part of the reason I think I continue to be fascinated with this whole field of the hidden brain is that at some fundamental level, I feel like it’s teaching me things about myself.

Is there any technology being developed that researchers might use to better study human behavior in the future?

I think there are a lot of interesting ideas that are being worked on right now. There’s research, for example, looking at whether you could study facial expressions as a window into people’s emotional states, and can those expressions tell us something that people are not able or willing to tell us when you just ask them the question. There’s a lot of work that looks at brain imaging that is trying to peer deeper and deeper into the way the brain works to say, can you understand from these brain and neurological processes how it is we think about the world. And in many ways I think some of these technologies are already providing us with very valuable tools to understand how the mind works.

I would argue that psychological techniques and experiments are also a technology. I would argue the implicit association test is a technology. It’s not a technology that uses a machine to peer inside the brain, but it’s a technology that really uses scientific techniques to say, how do we better understand what’s happening inside people’s heads. I am not personally enamored by the idea that the only technologies that are valuable are the technologies that come from machines. I think you can be very rigorous and base your work on empirical science even if you’re not using a brain scanner.

"I’ve Lived the Life of 500 People": The Photography of Art Wolfe

Smithsonian Magazine

For five decades, Art Wolfe has traveled the globe, camera in hand, documenting everything from bull elephants in Botswana to blue icebergs in Antarctica. In Earth Is My Witness: The Photography of Art Wolfe, his life's work is laid out across more than 400 glossy pages, offering readers a chance to immerse themselves in the threatened places, animals and cultures that he has dedicated his career to capturing. The book is both a testament to a prodigious career and a celebration of a man who has devoted his life to conservation photography. 

Wolfe is no stranger to publishing: Since 1989, he has released at least one book a year, but he looks at Earth Is My Witness through a different lens. "I've done 80 books," Wolfe told, "and if anyone has entertained the idea of owning one of my books, I think this is the book that covers all the bases. I'm very proud of it." Wolfe travels nearly nine months out of the year, but recently spoke with us from his Seattle office about his lengthy career, avoiding "writer's block" and the places he most wants to see to next.


Earth Is My Witness: The Photography of Art Wolfe

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Smithsonian: How did you come to photography?

Wolfe: I was an art major at the University of Washington, but also during those college years I got into climbing. I was always a young naturalist—I always loved the natural world, and as I got older, I got more and more into hiking up into mountains and onto glaciers. During the week I’d go to school and learn about composition, and on the weekends, I got a little camera to document the climbs. My allegiances shifted during those college years. I absorbed everything I was learning in art school and applied it to my photos. By the time that I graduated, I saw myself as a photographer rather than a painter.

What did photography offer that was different from fine art?

It was much easier to create original compositions through the photographic process than to try to sit and stare at a blank piece of canvas or watercolor paper and create a meaningful composition. And I started seeing, fairly fast, that the camera could be a ticket to travel. I've always wanted to see what was beyond the ocean. Living on the West Coast you look out across the ocean toward Asia, and the camera became a passport into the unknown: to cultures, to countries that I wanted to see.

The book is a massive 400-page collection of photographs from your entire career thus far. How has your approach to photography and to capturing what you see changed or evolved? Can we see that in the book?

I think the greatest thing that art gave me was the insatiable curiosity to look at what I was doing but not to be completely satisfied and lulled into a sense of complacency. With people, there are classic portraits, there are candid moments, but there's also a subset of photos where I've completely created an abstract composition, where I've arranged up to 60 monks in a rosette below me in a monastery on the outskirts of Katmandu. A lot of people would condemn that and say that I'm altering reality, but wearing the hat of an artist ... I've given myself permission to do that.

The thing I was trying to avoid was something analogous to writer's block, where you run out of ideas. Fine art training and studying art taught me and encouraged me to evolve my work and never to get in a rut and shoot the same thing forty years later, and that has kept me excited and moving forward in a positive direction.

What do you find that inspires you most?

Capturing an image that may be a very private moment between you and a subject, but if it's successful, it can be seen and witnessed by millions of people around the globe. I think that's the undercurrent of almost everything I've done over the last 40 years. It's why sculptors sculpt and writers write and painters paint ... communicating a thought and idea that, if successful, reaches a broad audience. I wear the hat of a communicator. I photograph for my own enjoyment, but that in and of itself wouldn't do it. It's communicating, inspiring and encouraging people through the photographic medium that really puts the fire in my belly.

There's this idea, among people who study memory, that in order to feel as though you've lived a long life, it's not necessarily about living a lot of years but doing a lot of things, and having a lot of memories to fill those years. I look at your book, and I see all of the places you've been and all the memories you must have—is there one, or a few, in particular, that stands out to you?

I totally agree with that. My father passed away when he was 94 a couple of years ago. I would come home from yet another trip and he was living in an assisted care facility very close to where I lived, and I would naturally stop by before I even went home. And he was looking at me under the covers kind of worried, and I said "Are you worrying about me?" And he would nod, and I would say, "Listen, I’ve lived the life of 500 people. I've seen all of the charismatic animals I've ever wanted to see, from snow leopards to giant pandas to mountain gorillas to great white sharks. I've been all over the Earth, I've lived the life of 500 people; do not worry about me. Take care of yourself."

When I first looked at that book as a published book, with all the photos in it, it was humbling. I felt humbled by having been to the Karakoram Range and looking at K2, or being involved in the first Western expedition to Tibet, or being in the heart of the Amazon and witnessing tribes that hadn’t been exposed to the outside world. All of those—almost any one of those photos that I focus on in that book will have an etched memory in my brain. I cannot remember the names of people I taught two days ago, but show me an image and I can tell you a story about it with clarity.

Having done so much—having lived those 500 lives—what's next? Are there places you haven't been that you want to go?

I've got like five or six books in my mind, many of which I've been working on. The fear is running out of ideas, writer's block. Creative energy courses through my body. I'll always be working on something, I'll never be retired.

There are a lot of places I've never been: Egypt, Spain, places that people would maybe think would be the first places I would go. I'm holding those off until I get a little older. I want to go through the Middle East.

"Lost Continent" Rises Again With New Expedition

Smithsonian Magazine

Tens of millions of years after it disappeared under the waters of the Pacific Ocean, scientists have completed the first explorations of what some scientists are calling a hidden continent, Naaman Zhou reports at the Guardian.

During a two-month ocean voyage this summer, a team of more than 30 scientists from 12 countries explored the submerged landmass of Zealandia on an advanced research vessel and collected samples from the seabed. Scientists were able to drill into the ocean floor at depths of more than 4,000 feet, collecting more than 8,000 feet of sediment cores that provides a window into 70 million years of geologic history, reports Georgie Burgess for ABC News.

More than 8,000 fossils from hundreds of species were also collected in the drilling, giving scientists a glimpse at terrestrial life that lived tens of millions of years ago in the area. "The discovery of microscopic shells of organisms that lived in warm shallow seas, and of spores and pollen from land plants, reveal that the geography and climate of Zealandia were dramatically different in the past," expedition leader Gerald Dickens said in a statement. While more than 90 percent of Zealandia is now submerged under more than a kilometer (two-thirds of a mile) of water, when it was above the surface, it likely provided a path that many land animals and plants could have used to spread across the South Pacific, notes Naaman Zhou of the Guardian.

The Geological Society of America officially endorsed the long-standing theory that a nearly 2 million-square-mile section of Pacific Ocean floor around the country of New Zealand was actually continental crust that had submerged beneath the water in a paper published by its journal in February. As Sarah Sloat reports for Inverse, this sinking, believed have taken place after the continent broke off from Australia around 60 to 85 million years ago, made New Zealand, and other seemingly disparate islands in the area, the remains of what was once a large landmass. 

However, classifying Zealandia as a continent is still a source of debate among scientists. In an interview with Michael Greshko of National Geographic in February, Christopher Scotese, a Northwestern University geologist was skeptical. “My judgment is that though Zealandia is continental, it is not a continent,” Scotese said. “If it were emergent, we would readily identify it with Australia, much like we identify Greenland with North America and Madagascar with Africa.” 

Scientists now plan to study the sediment cores and fossils to help create models of how the region looked and changed over the course of tens of millions of years, reports Sloat, and plans are always in the works for a return expedition next year.

"Missing Link" Cave Fish Walks Like a Salamander

Smithsonian Magazine

The earliest vertebrate animals to walk on land were ancient four-limbed tetrapods that waggled their way across the ground like salamanders. Yet researchers still haven’t found many intermediate species showing just how swimming fish evolved to walk on land. Now, an endangered species only found in a handful of caverns in Thailand might finally help straighten things out.

The species in question is a type of blind cave fish called Cryptotora thamicola, or the waterfall-climbing cave fish. Documented in a study recently published in the journal Scientific Reports, the creature uses its four fins to crawl over rocks and up slick walls. The fish even has a full pelvis fused to its spine—a skeletal feature absent from any of the other 30,000 fish species in the world. This particular feature, however, is found in terrestrial vertebrates and fossils of the earliest tetrapods, making the waterfall cave fish a unique window into evolution.

“It’s really weird,” John R. Hutchinson, a biologist at the Royal Veterinary College at the University of London tells Carl Zimmer at The New York Times. “It’s a good example of how much fish diversity there’s left to be discovered.”

The species was first found in Northern Thailand in 1985 in eight caves near the Myanmar border. The Thai government is now extremely protective of those caves, allowing only a handful of researchers to examine them and their strange fish.

Last year, Apinun Suvarnaraksha, an ichthyologist from Maejo University in Thailand and Daphne Soares, a biologist at the New Jersey Institute of Technology observed the fish on an expedition to those caves and took a video . When Soares shared the images with her NJIT colleague Brooke Flammang, a biomechanics researcher, she was stunned. “I was like, ‘Fish can’t do that,’” Flammang tells Diane Kelly at Wired. “That’s ridiculous.”

Flammang hoped to get specimens of the rare fish to study, but that was not possible. So she began working with Suvarnaraksha, who returned to the caves and began briefly capturing the fish and putting them in an aquarium for filming before releasing them. He was also able to perform a CT scan of a preserved museum specimen of Cryptotora thamicola at a local dental school.

Armed with that data, Flammang began to unravel the secrets of the cave fish. It didn’t take long. “When they sent me the files, I thought someone was playing a trick on me,” she tells Kelly. “There was this gigantic pelvis [on the CT scan] that looks nothing like any fish pelvis.”

While it’s highly unlikely that the waterfall cave fish is an ancestor of ancient tetrapods, its evolution sheds some light on how other fish could have evolved to move on land. It also calls into question some of the 400-million-year-old tetrapod “footprints” scientists have found  in recent years.

Researchers may now need to evaluate those prints—the next likely candidate is the giant waddling fish. “The physics are the same,” Flammang tells Zimmer. 

"Shark Vision" Shines Light on Biofluorescent Species

Smithsonian Magazine

Donning scuba gear and carrying a Red Epic camera equipped with a special filter, researchers recently dove into Scripps Canyon off the coast of San Diego to study how catsharks see the world.

On their own, catsharks are pretty bland species. The small, roughly 3-foot sharks spend most of their life at depths of around 2,000 feet, where only wavelengths of blue light penetrate. But researchers have known for awhile that these homely sharks are biofluorescent. This doesn't mean that the sharks generate light, but rather they absorb and then re-emit light at a different wavelength or color. 

Over the last decade, David Gruber, a researcher at Baruch College, has discovered dozens of bioflouorecent fish and sharks around the world. But now he's interested in why the creatures have such bright patterns and, since they are not visible to the human eye, how the animals actually see them. So the team developed a special filter to get a shark’s-eye view of the ocean, focusing on two species of catsharks: the swell shark, Cephaloscyllium ventriosum, and the chain catshark, cyliorhinus rotifer.

The team first examined the eyes of catsharks and discovered long rods that allow the animals to see in extremely low light, writes Brian Clark Howard at National Geographic. They also found that the sharks have pigments that only allow them to see in the blue and green spectrum, as opposed to human eyes which have cones that pick up red, green, and blue light.

“Some sharks’ eyes are 100 times better than ours in low-light conditions,” Gruber says in a press release. “They swim many meters below the surface, in areas that are incredibly difficult for a human to see anything. But that’s where they’ve been living for 400 million years, so their eyes have adapted well to that dim, pure-blue environment.” 

In addition to the dim light, the skin of the animals contains a little-understood pigment that absorbs the blue light and emits a fluorescent green. Using that information, Gruber and his team created their “shark’s eye” camera that simulates what sharks see and went on several night dives to record the animals. Though they were only able to film sharks in the shallower regions of the canyon, they were still impressed with the view.

“Imagine being at a disco party with only blue lighting, so everything looks blue,” Gruber tells Howard. “Suddenly, someone jumps onto the dance floor with an outfit covered in patterned fluorescent paint that converts blue light into green. They would stand out like a sore thumb. That's what these sharks are doing.”

Through the filters, swell sharks were covered in bright green spots and females also had a “face mask” of glowing spots. The chain catsharks were covered in alternating light and dark areas, while the males’ pelvic claspers, used in reproduction, also glowed. The team recently published their results in the journal Scientific Reports.

According to Elizabeth Preston at The Atlantic, Gruber has found more than 180 fluorescing fish and at least one Day-Glo sea-turtle species in the last five years. He says he thinks the patterns make the animals more visible to each other in the deep ocean, and may be involved in methods of communication we haven’t yet discovered. “It makes perfect sense if you think about life in the blue ocean,” he tells Preston. “Why wouldn’t they come up with a way to make their world richer in texture?”

Beyond shark vision, Gruber hopes to create more cameras that simulate what other ocean animals see. “This work forces us to take a step out of the human perspective and start imagining the world through a shark's perspective,” Gruber tells Howard. “Hopefully it will also inspire us to protect them better.”

"Sleeping" Birch Trees Rest Their Branches at Night

Smithsonian Magazine

In recent years, researchers have discovered that trees can comminicate and share nutrients via an underground fungal net. Now, scientists in Europe have found that trees also “sleep,” or at least relax a little at night, Andy Coghlan reports for New Scientist

Using a terrestrial laser scanner on windless nights close to the equinox, researchers scanned two birch trees over the course of the night, one in Finland and one in Austria. Researchers scanned the birch in Finland hourly and the one in Austrain about every 10 minutes. The results, published in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science, show that the trees drooped up to nearly four inches during the night.

According to a press release, the leaves and branches slowly relaxed over time, reaching their lowest position about two hours before sunrise. Over the course of the morning, the trees returned to their original positions.

In some ways the study was a test of the laser scanning technology. Using traditional photography, which needs lots of light to produce an image, would have interfered with the trees’ nighttime patterns. But the infrared laser illuminated points on the tree for a fraction of a second. That allowed the entire tree to be mapped in minutes with minimal disturbance.

The right laser scan is the tree's regular branch positioning, while the left laser scan shows its nighttime drooping limbs. (Vienna University of Technology)

This technique could allow scientists to delve further into the study of "plant sleep patterns," moving from individual trees to much larger areas, study co-author Norbert Pfeifer explains in the press release.

It’s likely that the droop is caused by a decrease in turgor pressure, a type of internal water pressure that keeps plants upright. “It means branches and leaf stems are less rigid, and more prone to drooping under their own weight,” study co-author András Zlinszky, a biologist at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, tells CoghlanWhen photosynthesis stops at night, turgor pressure is reduced, likely causing the branches to “relax.”

It’s possible the droop is also related to circadian rhythms, which are encoded in almost every creature on earth, Brian Resnick at Vox points out. The researchers tell Coglan that they hope to repeat the experiment on other tree species, and are particularly interested in chestnuts and poplars, two trees in which genes associated with circadian rhythms have been found.

“Perhaps the most important open question is whether the observed branch movements take place under the influence of light from sunset and sunrise, or if they are independent from light and governed by the internal circadian clock of the plant,” according to the study. Some branches started to return to their daytime position before sunrise, hinting that perhaps the plants do follow an internal clock. But only more study of the tree's daily patterns will help determine if this is the case.

“There have been some studies on circadian rhythms in trees, mostly studying gene expression, but this latest research is a beautiful way to watch it happen in individual trees,” biologist C. Robertson McClung of Dartmouth College, who is not involved in the study, tells Coghlan. “It shows things are happening in the real world.”

The study might have practical applications as well. Study author Eetu Puttonen says knowing the daily cycle of how water moves through trees could help both the timber and rubber industries, both of which rely on water content of the trees.

"Survival On Land and Sea" Published by the Ethnogeographic Board and the Smithsonian Institution, 1944

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
The Ethnogeographic Board and the staff of the Smithsonian created a 187 page pocket sized, waterproof, booklet for soldiers and airman to carry with them through the war. The booklet detailed survival information for servicemen stranded in the Pacific. The information, compiled by Smithsonian experts, included tips on how to start fires, how to find water, navigation information, how to identify edible and dangerous plants, and much more. The board distributed over 1 million booklets by the end of the war.

The Ethnogeographic Board and the staff of the Smithsonian also published the twenty-one volume series "War Background Studies."

Henson, Pamela, "The Smithsonian Goes to War: The Increase and Diffusion of Scientific Knowledge In the Pacific," in Science and the Pacific War, edt. Roy M. MacLeod, (Cornwall, United Kingdom: 2000) 27-50.

"Survival On Land and Sea" published by the Ethnogeographic Board and the Smithsonian Institution during World War Two.

"Tortoise" Mobile Robot

National Museum of American History
Among the first electronic mobile robots were the experimental machines of neuroscientist W. Grey Walter. Walter studied the brain’s electrical activity at the Burden Neurological Institute (BNI) near Bristol, England. His battery-powered robots were models to test his theory that a minimum number of brain cells can control complex behavior and choice. Soon after World War II, electronic motors and computers made possible such experimental robots that imitated living intelligence. Researchers like Walter then sought to answer a question that still occupies their successors: How close can machines come to human intelligence?

In the late 1940s Walter built his first model animals—simple, slow-moving, tortoise-shaped machines he named Elmer and Elsie. In 1951, Walter enlisted BNI engineer W. J. Warren to build the robot displayed here.

The machines are designed to explore their environment and react to it with two senses—sight and touch. A rotating photoelectric cell, the machine’s “eye,” scans the horizon continuously until it detects an external light. Scanning stops and the machine either moves toward the light source or, if the source is too bright, moves away. An external contact switch, sensitive to touch, causes the machine to retreat if it encounters obstacles. The robots retreat to a recharging station when their batteries were low.

"Transportation" painting

National Postal Museum
Mounted between wood and glass, Transportation is a 2 foot by 2.5 foot oil painting on canvas by Vincent Aderente. Similar to much of Aderente's work, the painting depicts a female allegorical figure, most likely representing progress, standing with each hand upon a particular mode of transportation--shipping and the railroad. Her right hand touches a ship with the wide expanse of ocean extending beyond it. Her left hand touches a train that stands adjacent to various smokestacks and factories indicative of industrialization.

The size of this particular painting is very small compared to the rest of Vincent Aderente's portfolio. Consequently, it can be assumed that this painting was a study for a larger mural to be produced at a later date. Markings on the back indicate that Aderente painted this work in 1918, a time when his reputation was growing.

Vincent Aderente was born in 1880 in Naples, Italy, and came to the United States with his parents at the age of six. Much of his early career was as an assistant to the muralist Edwin Blashfield where he worked to build the murals now seen at the Detroit Public Library in 1922. Although most of Aderente's larger work was limited to the New Jersey and Hudson area, Aderente did some small commissions involving printed poems for the American Weekly and the New York Sunday Americans in 1924 which paired his illustrations of allegorical women with poetry. Vincent Aderente is perhaps best known for his work on a series of World War I posters entitled “Columbia Calls,” along with designing eight US Government Bonds in 1935. Aderente died in 1941.


Aderente, Vincent Papers, 1906-1960. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. [D32].

"Want Action? Join U.S. Marine Corps!" Poster

National Museum of American History
Physical Description Four-color print on paper. Specific History James Montgomery Flagg, the creator of this poster, was born in New York in 1877. As a child he began to draw and sold his first picture at the age of twelve. Two years later he was contributing to Life magazine and at fifteen was on the staff of the The Judge. Flagg studied at the Art Students League in New York. When he was twenty, he spent a year working in London before moving to France. Flagg was one of America's leading illustrators. His illustrations were in Photoplay, McClure's Magazine, Collier's Weekly, Ladies' Home Journal, Cosmopolitan, Saturday Evening Post, and Harper's Weekly. During the World War I Flagg designed forty-six posters for the government. His most famous work is the Uncle Sam poster with the caption "I Want You for the U.S. Army." An adapted version of this poster was also used during the World War II. Flagg died in 1960. General History Posters during World War II were designed to instill in people a positive outlook, a sense of patriotism, and confidence. They linked the war in trenches with the war at home. From a practical point, they were used to encourage all Americans to help with the war effort. The posters called on every man, woman, and child to endure the personal sacrifice and domestic adjustments to further the national agenda. They encouraged rationing, conservation, and sacrifice. In addition, the posters were used for recruitment, productivity, and motivation as well as for financing the war effort. The stark, colorful graphic designs elicited strong emotions. The posters played to the fears, frustrations, and faith in freedoms that lingered in people's minds during the war.

"Where Next, Columbus?" Exhibit Hall

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
The exhibit "Where Next, Columbus?" in the National Air and Space Museum begins with a look back at the history of exploration--motives, methods and consequences--from the time of Columbus' arrival in the New World (1492) to the Apollo moon landing in 1969. Two figures - one dressed as an early explorer and one dressed in a space suit - can be seen. Images, objects and manuscripts highlight three case studies in exploration--Spain's enterprises in the Indies, Lewis and Clark's charting of the American West, and the Apollo moon missions. The exhibition also follows our changing conceptions of the Earth and the universe surrounding it as revealed through maps, cosmological diagrams and astronomical images from the past 500 years.

"You Gotta Remember, Eels Are Weird"

Smithsonian Magazine

In a bitter November wind, fisherman Maurice Bosse, like his father and grandfather before him, is baiting his traps to haul in the most disgusting delicacy in Virginia's James River a slithering mass of eels. But lately something is happening to the staple of his family's business. "Eels are sure getting scarce," Bosse says.

There was a time when eels were plentiful; Bosse's traps would be so full that the eels' skin would be scarred with mesh marks from being jammed against the cage. Then about six years ago, Bosse started seeing a decline in the number of eels he brought in. Bosse isn't sure what is happening to the hearty American eel, and neither are researchers. In Canada's St. Lawrence River, scientists studied a similar recent eel decline and ruled out a number of possibilities. Overfishing? Catches hadn't increased in decades. Too many dams? The dams hadn't stopped the fish before. Global warming? Oceanic changes had occurred in the past without affecting the eels.

The curious decline in American eels, the researchers concluded, could lie at any point along their 6,500-mile migration route. Born in the ocean, the eels live as free-floating larvae for years in ocean currents, then metamorphose into swimmers and move into the mouths of rivers, where they live for sometimes decades, before swimming back to the ocean to spawn and die.

"Many [people] are working for the eel, but its reputation works against it," reports writer Bruce Watson, who touched an eel, ate one and otherwise grudgingly came to admire the slimy creature. "In a world filled with fishermen, dams and diners," concludes Watson, "one has to be slippery to survive."

"body/freedom/art": Rethinking disability through art

National Museum of American History

Curator Dr. Katherine Ott invited students in Dr. Samuel J. Redman's Museum/Historic Site Interpretation Seminar to explore the museum's collections and write blog posts sharing their research. Read more blog posts by the students.

What is disability? Performance artist, writer, and actor Neil Marcus encourages his audience to rethink disability as something that is not medical or physiological. Rather, Marcus suggests, "Disability is an art. It's an ingenious way to live." Based on this perspective, Marcus aims to live artfully: non-medically, non-stereotypically, and full of soul.

Daytime outdoor photo of man crouching out of wheelchair. He wears yellow pants.

I found Neil Marcus' poem, "Disabled Country," on the museum's online exhibition titled "EveryBody: An Artifact History of Disability in America." I felt moved by Marcus' discussion of identity, disability, and "home," especially within the context of my own experiences with art and disability. I contacted Marcus with a number of questions about his artistic motivations and creative process.

"Neil Marcus – Disabled Country" is also available on YouTube

Even though disability varies across cultures and encompasses a range of experiences, most people still think it is a medical problem to be solved. Since the 1970s, artists and activists have joined with academics to challenge the dominant medical model of disability and encourage people to understand disability as an expansive and positive experience. In his engagement with the arts and politics of disability, Marcus is part of this wide-ranging group dedicated to breaking down stigmas of disability and challenging stereotypes.

In "Disabled Country," Neil Marcus presents his audience with a story about disability, identity, and belonging. I asked Marcus how these issues relate to his motivation as an artist, and Marcus says that in the realm of art and disability, you can't be disabled without addressing its politics. Most importantly, the artist highlights that a person's disability can't be separated from their identity and daily interactions. Disability becomes place: a place to which people migrate, and a place in which Marcus found himself staying after he was diagnosed with a neurological disorder that affects muscles and movement (dystonia) as a child. The speaker, who makes a home for himself in this country called Disabled, lives Disabled culture, and lives Disabled stories. Not only are these categories self-defined, but other people also impose these categories on the speaker. As a result, we learn that disability is deeply connected with culture, communication, and how people interact with each other.

Black and white photo of two dancers, barefoot, wearing black pants. Feet, limbs intertwine.

The National Museum of American History commissioned Neil Marcus to do a reading of his poem, which resulted in a video that, in his words, Marcus "cobbled together." In his video, Marcus reads "Disabled Country" while in a swimming pool. Between lines of his poem, we also hear voice-overs from Petra Kuppers, a professor of English and women's studies at the University of Michigan. Kuppers highlights the patronizing and exploitative treatment of persons with disabilities by non-disabled people, especially in the art world. In this field, Kuppers says, "history is not a good guidance to good practice." Also in the video are clips from Marcus' play "Storm Reading" and the Salamander project by Olimpias, an artists' collective and performance research series led by Kuppers. Salamander is a community performance project begun after Marcus bought a $30 underwater Kodak camera. Marcus takes photographs and videos while the Olimpias team swims together. The team started a writing project to accompany their images.

I asked Marcus how these underwater images visualize how bodies interact with space, and how different people interact with each other. In response, Marcus explained that the underwater vantage point offers a new expression of "body/freedom/art," because the water shows the body in a new way. This process creates new ideas of "disability" and self which change the public sphere and self-image. These ideas challenge how disabled people may feel about hiding themselves. What is especially significant about this project (and those created by Olimpias) is that it is art produced by and for persons with disabilities. This pushes against the frequent invisibility of disability in art and media.

Color photo of man with brown hair and beard, with intense expression in his wide eyes. Blue shirt, gray pants. Slightly reflection in background.

For many years, Neil Marcus worked as an actor performing in his autobiographical play "Storm Reading" and even appeared on NBC's television show E.R. in 1998. In "Storm Reading," Marcus and two other actors recreate his life and his encounters with the world, or the world's encounters with him. Marcus says that he identifies as a "disabled actor" because so much of who he is, what he thinks, and how he acts is impacted by his disability. Because of the oppression surrounding people whose bodies are different, his embrace of this identity offers one avenue for representation of disability in the media and arts. By being a disabled person who is acting and being seen, Marcus pushes media outlets to make disability visible.

A final theme that Marcus incorporates in his art is contact, and, indeed, much of his recent performance art consists of contact improvisation. For example, during a public presentation, Marcus asked each member of the audience to lean on the person next to them. I asked him why he asked the audience to do this, and what this contact means to him. This activity highlighted the importance of human connections and interdependence that is central to his work as an artist and activist. Marcus emphasizes this shared humanity through intense emotional interactions in performances that offer a model for how we might better interact with each other on a day-to-day basis.

Black and white close-up photo of two people, one wearing glasses, eyes closed. Their foreheads are pressed together.

Chelsea Miller is a graduate student in the History Department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Source credit: e-mail correspondence between Chelsea and Neil Marcus, an oral history interview conducted by Esther Ehrlich in 2004 for the Bancroft Library, and the Olimpias project website. 

Chelsea Miller, graduate student in Public History, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Posted Date: 
Tuesday, August 18, 2015 - 11:30


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#5WomenArtists Campaign Tackles Gender Inequity for the Fifth Year in a Row

Smithsonian Magazine

Can you name five women artists? For plenty of people, the answer is no—a fact the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) is actively trying to change. Every March since 2016, the Washington, D.C.-based institution has celebrated Women’s History Month by rolling out its #5WomenArtists campaign, which strives to combat gender inequity in the arts through the power of social media. This year’s showing is especially strong, with 272 museums, gallery spaces and other art-focused mainstays joining forces to rally behind the hashtag’s mission, reports Monica Castillo for Hyperallergic.

A stroll through most of the cultural institutions that dot the Western world is all it takes to underscore the severity of the issue. Though women make up nearly half of visual artists in the United States, they represent a meager 13 percent of artists in the permanent collections of prominent American museums. On average, they also earn 26 percent less than their male colleagues—a disparity exacerbated by advanced age, according to the NMWA website. The numbers are even worse for women artists of color, who comprise just 5.6 percent of creatives featured in galleries, per Hyperallergic.

This gross underrepresentation gives the public “a warped or limited view of our history,” Sydney-based arts consultant John Cruthers told the Guardian’s Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore last year. “By having so few women, you miss out on a big part of the story.”

The male-centric skew isn’t simply a product of history. Despite being barred from academic institutions—and even from studying nude models—for centuries, women artists persevered and produced around the world, only to be written out of textbooks and snubbed by collectors. (Of the 300-plus artists mentioned in Janson’s Basic History of Western Art, a staple in many art history classes, only 8 percent are women, and less than 1 percent are women of color.)

Since opening its doors in 1987, the NMWA has acquired some 4,500 works by more than 1,000 artists spanning centuries and continents. In recent years, the museum has expanded its mission to spotlight other inequities and inequalities facing women in the arts. Its current run of #5WomenArtists centers on socially conscious artworks intended to raise global awareness about such issues as climate change, racial justice and LGBTQ+ rights.

A promotional graphic for the #5WomenArtists campaign (National Museum of Women in the Arts)

Among those featured is Mexico City-based artist Mónica Mayer, whose pieces have reclaimed the clothesline—a traditionally feminine object linked to domesticity—as a powerful tool to spark discussion about sexual harassment, domestic violence and human trafficking. In 2017, she debuted a temporary NMWA installation called El Tendedero/The Clothesline Project; the display prompted visitors to voice their dislikes about their hometowns on small pink ballots that were then pinned to clotheslines.

Also highlighted on the NMWA website is Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, an enrolled member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Nation in Montana. She is known for infusing her work with Native American art forms and illustrating the longstanding suppression of native cultures.

With nearly 300 other institutions—including the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, the Guggenheim Museum, Museu de Arte Sacra de São Paulo and the Toronto International Film Festival—contributing to this year’s #5WomenArtists campaign, other examples abound online. On Twitter, the hashtag has been attached to figures including Augusta Savage, the only black woman artist to contribute to the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and Shi Hui, who has garnered acclaim for her eclectic, fiber-based sculptures.

The goal, perhaps, is to craft a reality in which the hashtag may no longer be necessary. Until then, initiatives like #5WomenArtists will hopefully inspire people to “turn [their] gaze inward,” California dealer Ashara Ekundayo told the Art Newspaper’s Rochelle Spencer last year. After all, she says, “the work that women create, and the institutions we build and steward, are containers for celebration and ceremony.”

And that’s not a thing to waste.

$1 White-fronted Geese plate block of 6

National Postal Museum
Sales of duck stamps slumped as the United States deepened its involvement in World War II and thousands of young men joined the military. The trend reversed with the 1944-1945 issue, based on Walter A. Weber's watercolor wash titled "White-fronted Geese." Weber, then a staff artist for the National Park Service, signed this block of six, plate 155603. His signature makes the block an especially desirable item. Two federal duck stamps have featured his artwork, this issue and the issue of 1950-1951, "Trumpeter Swans."

Weber, born in 1906 on Chicago's west side, spent much of his life doing what he loved—using art to make botany and wildlife 'accessible' to the general public. He studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the University of Chicago and worked at Chicago's Field Museum. He spent two years working as a biologist for the Chicago world's fair, A Century of Progress (1933-1934), before accepting a position at the National Park Service. He also worked at the U.S. National Museum. In 1949 he became staff artist for National Geographic Society, a position he held until retirement in 1971. The U.S. Department of the Interior honored him with its highest civilian award in 1967, recognizing him as the one of the nation's outstanding wildlife and nature artists. Weber died in 1979.

Gift of Jeanette Cantrell Rudy

$1 Wood Ducks plate block of 6

National Postal Museum
Both artist Walter E. Bohl (1907-1990) and designer Victor S. McCloskey, Jr. (1908-1988), signed this block of six 1943 federal duck stamps, plate #152827. With both Bohl and McCloskey deceased, the block is especially significant and desirable. Bohl etched the original image on copper. The vignette, engraved by Charles A. Brooks, features Wood Ducks in flight. John Edmondson engraved the frame, letters, and numerals. Issued during World War II, the stamp did not sell well and is marred by production issues such as poor quality paper, gum skips, and carbon specks.

Self-trained artist Walter E. Bohl seized the public's attention in 1935 when Esquire Magazine introduced his work. Over the next decade, the magazine featured dozens of his etchings and watercolors. Born in Chicago and raised in Columbus, Wisconsin, he earned a living working for Illinois Bell Telephone Company until Esquire recognized his artistic genius. He spent much of his life near Scottsdale, Arizona.

Victor S. McCloskey, Jr., studied at Corcoran Gallery School of Art in Washington, D.C., located just a few blocks north of the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. After completing an internship at the BEP in 1926, he joined its staff as engraver (1930) and then designer (1934). Designing the first federal duck stamp was among his earliest assignments. He spent his entire career at the BEP, retiring in 1965.

Gift of Jeanette Cantrell Rudy

$100 Million And 20 Years of Work May Not Be Enough to Save the Iberian Lynx

Smithsonian Magazine

Around 20 years ago, the Iberian lynx, which once thrived across Spain and Portugal, almost went extinct.* But conservationists buckled down, investing heavily in the species’ salvation and ultimately raising the population from just 94 to 312, the Guardian explains.

Just as wildlife managers were beginning to congratulate themselves, however, a new paper published in Nature Climate Change warns that those celebrations could be short-lived. Climate change, apparently, is set to kick off a domino chain of environmental problems, ultimately threatening the Iberian lynx’s survival.

Rabbits, the New York Times reports, are key to this sorry predicament. Iberian lynx rely on European rabbits as prey. Climate change may destroy prime rabbit habitat, leaving the lynx to starve as the bunnies move north. Scientists say that moving the predators up north and to higher ground, the Times reports, will be the lynx’s best hope for survival.

If conservationists can pull off this move, LiveScience reports, then all hope is not lost for the world’s rarest cat.

Reintroducing the animals farther north could spare the population and even help it rebound, said study co-author Miguel Bustos Araújo, a biogeographer at the National Museum of Natural Sciences, in Madrid.

This suggests that that conservation programs in general should account for climate change, Araújo said.

Of course, the Iberian lynx isn’t the only species whose existence will likely be threatening by the affects of climate change. The Center for Biological Diversity, for example, provides a list of 350 such species. Rather than shuttling hundreds of species to more favorable climates, fighting the cause—not the symptoms—of climate change seems the more logical route.

*This sentence was updated for clarity.

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'Dry January' Has Benefits All Year Long

Smithsonian Magazine

In recent years, the concept of “Dry January,” or swearing off alcohol for the first month of the year, has gained popularity around the world. You may even have a friend or two who finished off their glass of champagne on New Year’s Eve then declared they were calling it quits—at least until February 1. A new study from the University of Sussex suggests taking a month-long break from alcohol might actually be a resolution that sticks, with reported benefits like sleep and reduce drinking throughout the rest of the year.

The concept of a sobriety month at the start of the year gained popularity in 2014 when the U.K. non-profit Alcohol Concern, which is now known as Alcohol Change UK, came up with the booze-free challenge. Participants can do the challenge on their own, or sign up at the website and use apps and other resources to help them along. The idea is for people that are concerned they are drinking too much or too often to slow things down.

So, does the month of temperance have any effect? Ed Cara at Gizmodo reports that a study of Dry January participants seems to show it really does have an impact. Last year, the Sussex team surveyed 2,000 people in the U.K. planning on participating in the challenge. They then re-surveyed 1,715 of those participants in the first week of February and 816 challenge participants in August. What they found was that the month-long dry spell had lasting effects.

The days per week respondents drank dropped from an average of 4.3 to 3.3 days. The amount of alcohol they drank per day also dropped from 8.6 to 7.1 units, which, for the survey’s purpose, was considered 10 milliliters or about half a glass of wine. They also reported getting really drunk less often, just 2.1 days per month versus 3.4 days before Dry January.

“The simple act of taking a month off alcohol helps people drink less in the long term: by August people are reporting one extra dry day per week,” Richard de Visser, the University of Sussex psychologist who led the survey, says in a press release. “There are also considerable immediate benefits: nine in ten people save money, seven in ten sleep better and three in five lose weight.”

Even those who gave it a shot, but didn’t make it all the way through January without a pint, showed some positive impacts—still not as significant as those who completed the challenge, however.

The survey also revealed that trying to lay off alcohol led people to report better concentration, clearer skin, feelings of achievement and control, and increased self-reflection about when, where and why they drink.

CEO of Alcohol Change Richard Piper says he hears stories about the challenge changing lives all the time.

“The brilliant thing about Dry January is that it’s not really about January. Being alcohol-free for 31 days shows us that we don’t need alcohol to have fun, to relax, to socialize,” he says in the release. “That means that for the rest of the year we are better able to make decisions about our drinking, and to avoid slipping into drinking more than we really want to.”

As Cara at Gizmodo points out, however, the survey should be taken with healthy skepticism. It relies on self-reporting, which can be unreliable and it was not published in a peer-reviewed journal. The team says it has no plans to publish it as a formal paper. Matt Sheffield, an addiction researchers at the University of Sheffield, says to really figure out the impact of abstinence, researchers need participants to keep track of their drinking, not just estimate it via survey, he tells Amy Fleming at The Guardian.

“[We need] an objective measure of whether participants are telling the truth,” he says. “If you ever take an alcohol diary, it’s quite an eye-opener – people aren’t aware of how much they’re really drinking.”

But the survey results do line up with a similar paper published by Visser in 2015 in Health Psychology assessing people who participated in the inaugural Dry January. That study also found that months later people reported drinking less. A study in BMJ Open from 2017 also found that an alcohol-free month like Dry January or Sober October for moderate to heavy drinkers reduced insulin resistance, weight, blood pressure and growth factors related to cancer.

And even if the benefits aren’t as great as the survey suggests, there is one benefit to the dry-month movement; as Fritz Hahn at The Washington Post notes, its gives people a socially-sanctioned time to assess their drinking and take a break from alcohol without friends or colleagues speculating about whether they are dealing with illness or alcoholism.

'Exploding' Ant Ruptures Its Own Body to Defend Its Nest

Smithsonian Magazine

As tiny critters surrounded by big threats, ants have evolved a number of unique ways to protect themselves: they bite, they sting, they fling themselves to safety. But amid the treetops of Borneo, one species of ant resorts to a particularly dramatic method of warding off predators: it tears its body apart to release a toxic secretion, killing itself in the process.

According to Allyson Chiu of the Washington Post, a team of researcher has described the species, which they aptly dubbed Colobopsis explodens, for the first time in the journal ZooKeys. The body of C. explodens is filled with glandular sacs containing a toxic, yellow secretion. If an enemy proves too persistent, these little insects will angle their backsides close to the predator and contract their muscles so tightly that their skin bursts open and release the goo, which has a “spice-like, curry-like” scent, Alice Laciny, a doctoral student at the Natural History Museum in Vienna and lead author of the study, tells Chiu.

Not all C. explodens possess this trait. Only the minor workers are able to rupture their body wall. It is the ultimate act of self-sacrifice; they give up their lives in order to keep threats away from the nest.

“Imagine a single ant is like a cell in a human body,” Laciny tells Chiu. “The exploding workers work as immune cells. They sacrifice their lives to hold off danger.”

C. explodens belongs to the species group Colobopsis cylindrica, which encompases the wide umbrella of exploding ant species. Self-destructive tendencies among some ants were first observed in 1916, but the new report marks the first time since 1935 that a new species has been described, according to a summary by the publishers of the journal.

Because these strange and remarkable creatures have not been well studied, an interdisciplinary team from Austria, Thailand and Brunei came together in 2014 to classify different species of exploding ants. Researchers have identified at least 15 distinct species, "most of which," they write in the paper, "are probably new to science." C. explodens is the first one they have formally described. Previously, C. explodens was simply known as “Yellow Goo,” after the color of its toxic secretion.

As Hannah Ellis-Peterson points out in the Guardian, the ants’ suicidal altruism, formally known as autothysis, is not unheard of among insect species that live in large colonies and work closely together to ensure the success of group. Certain termites, for instance, can rupture their bodies to release a substance that blocks off access to the tunnels where they live. But in the new report, the study authors note that even among exploding ants, C. explodens is “extremely prone to self-sacrifice when threatened.”

Moving forward, Laciny tells Jason Bittel of National Geographic, the research team hopes to learn more about how C. explodens workers coordinate attacks on large predators—and discover what is inside their deadly—though aromatic—yellow goo.

'Hunger Stones' With Ominous Messages Emerge in Drought-Parched Czech River

Smithsonian Magazine

Throughout the summer, unusually hot and dry weather in Europe has revealed a slew of archaeological treasures, from a prehistoric henge in Ireland, to an ornate 17th century garden in England, to a lost German village once submerged underwater. The most recent relic to surface amid the drought is a stark reminder that Europeans have long been afflicted by parched, damaging conditions. As the Associated Press reports, “hunger stones” warning of drought-induced hardships have started surfacing in the Czech Republic.

More than a dozen of the stones have been found in and near the town of Decin, which is crossed by the Elbe River. Due to scorching temperatures, the water in the river has dropped, revealing boulders that were once used to record low water levels. The rocks are etched with dates, and the earliest one currently visible is 1616.

But hunger stones did more than simply document drought: They also lamented difficult conditions and let people know that trouble was afoot. One of the rocks, for instance, “expressed that drought had brought a bad harvest, lack of food, high prices and hunger for poor people,” according to a 2013 study of drought in Czech lands. A German inscription on the same rock reads: “When you see me, weep.”

This particular hunger stone has become a well-known tourist attraction in the Czech Republic, according to NPR’s Camila Domonoske. It is among the oldest hydrological landmarks in Central Europe and, due to a dam that was built on a tributary of the Elbe in 1926, the rock can be seen approximately 126 days each year. But the low water levels in the Elbe today are nevertheless “exceptional,” Domonoske writes. Earlier this month, the Local reported that the river had reached its lowest levels in more than half a century.

The hunger stones are not the first sunken relics to resurface in the Elbe this summer. Earlier this month, receding waters exposed unexploded bombs that may have been dumped in the Elbe after WWII.

Scientists are particularly concerned about the current European heatwave because its increased intensity has been linked to climate change. But as the hunger stones suggest, the continent has seen its fair share of damaging droughts. A recent study, in fact, found that while 21st century droughts are “the most extreme droughts driven by precipitation deficits during the vegetation period,” they have not been as long or as severe as some of the historic droughts that have struck Europe over the past 250 years.

It is perhaps little wonder, then, that the Czech hunger stones bear ominous messages of impending troubles.

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