The Ruins of Chernobyl Captured in Three Haunting, Drone-Shot Videos

Voices of Chernobyl—Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history of the 1986 nuclear explosion in Belarus—brings together the harrowing testimonies of over 500 eyewitnesses to the accident: Firefighters, nurses, soldiers, former Soviet officials, engineers, nuclear scientists, and ordinary Soviet citizens (at the time), who saw, but could not understand, events that would cost tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of lives.

We will never know the exact toll, due to both internal cover-ups and the immeasurable long-term effect of over 50 million curies of radionuclides spread out over the Soviet Union, Europe, and the globe for over three decades. But Alexievich’s book eschews “the usual approach of trying to quantify a disaster in terms of losses and displacement,” notes Robert Matthews at the Journal of Nuclear Medicine. She opted instead to tell the stories “of individuals and how the disaster affected their lives.”

The inherently moving, dramatic stories of people like Lyudmilla Ignatenko—the wife of a doomed firefighter whose unforgettable journey opens the book—immediately draw us into the “psychologic and personal tragedy” of the disaster. For their vividness and sheer emotional impact, these stories have a cinematic effect, filling our imagination with images of grisly tragedy and a grim persistence we might not exactly call heroism but which certainly counts as a close cousin.

It’s no wonder, then, that parts of Alexievich’s deservedly-Nobel-winning history made such a brilliant transition to the screen in Craig Mazin’s HBO miniseries, which draws from stories like Lyudmilla’s in its portrait of the explosion and its containment. The series' psychological focus, and the need to create individual heroes and villains, creates “confrontation where confrontation was unthinkable” in reality, as Masha Gessen writes in her critique at The New Yorker. We cannot trust Chernobyl as history, though it is incredibly compelling as historical fiction.

Rather what the show gives viewers, writes Gessen, is a stunningly accurate visual portrayal of the time period, one that seems at times to have recreated historical footage shot-for-shot. The show’s total immersion in the bleak, bureaucratic world of mid-eighties Soviet Russia has so enthralled viewers that people have taken to posting Instagram photos of themselves inside the Chernobyl exclusion zone. Though it may seem like a foolish thing to do given the levels of radiation still present in much of the area, Chernobyl has in fact been slated for redevelopment since 2007. Tourists began visiting the area not long afterwards.

Since the zone became accessible, hours of footage from Chernobyl and nearby city of Pripyat, former home of Lyudmilla Ignatenko, have appeared in amateur video and and more professional productions like “Postcards from Pripyat” (top), shot by Danny Cooke for CBS, “The Fallout,” a demo reel shot by Aerobo Designs, and the drone footage in the Wall Street Journal video just above. These are stunning montages of decaying Soviet cities left behind in time. Even emptied of the individuals whose stories keep us compulsively reading eyewitness accounts like Alexievich’s and watching fictionalized dramas like Mazin’s, the videos still have a story to tell, a visual account of the remains of an empire brought low by corruption, fear, and lies.

Related Content:

Scenes from HBO’s Chernobyl v. Real Footage Shot in 1986: A Side-By-Side Comparison

A Haunting Drone’s-Eye View of Chernobyl

The Animals of Chernobyl

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Scenes from HBO’s Chernobyl v. Real Footage Shot in 1986: A Side-By-Side Comparison

Audiences today can't get enough of history, especially history presented as a podcast or a prestige television series. Best of all is the historical prestige television series accompanied by its own podcast, currently exemplified by Chernobyl, HBO's five-episode dramatization of the events leading up to and the aftermath of the titular Soviet nuclear disaster. "The material culture of the Soviet Union is reproduced with an accuracy that has never before been seen in Western television or film — or, for that matter, in Russian television or film," The New Yorker's Masha Gessen writes of the show. "Soviet-born Americans — and, indeed, Soviet-born Russians — have been tweeting and blogging in awe at the uncanny precision with which the physical surroundings of Soviet people have been reproduced."

But along with all the praise for the accuracy on Chernobyl's surface has come criticism of its deeper conception of the time and place it takes as its setting: "its failure to accurately portray Soviet relationships of power," as Gessen puts it, or to acknowledge that "resignation was the defining condition of Soviet life. But resignation is a depressing and untelegenic spectacle. So the creators of Chernobyl imagine confrontation where confrontation was unthinkable."

Among the chilling truths of the real story of the Chernobyl disaster is how many people involved knew beforehand what could, and probably would, go wrong with the reactor that exploded on April 26, 1986. But Chernobyl, adhering to "the outlines of a disaster movie," instead pits a lone truth-teller against a set of self-serving, malevolent higher-ups.

Chernobyl creator and writer Craig Mazin is not unaware of this, as anyone who has listened to the miniseries' companion podcast knows. On each episode, Mazin discusses (with Peter Sagal from Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!, incidentally) the complications of bringing such a complex event, and one that involved so many people, to the screen three decades later, and the inherent tradeoffs involved between historical faithfulness and artistic license. The video essay from Thomas Flight above combines clips from the Chernobyl podcast with not just clips from Chernobyl itself but the real-life source footage that inspired the show. The six-minute viewing experience showcases the often-astonishing recreations Chernobyl accomplishes even as it casts doubt on the possibility of ever truly recreating history on the screen. But watching creators take on that increasingly daunting challenge is precisely what today's audiences can't get enough of.

via BoingBoing

Related Content:

A Haunting Drone’s-Eye View of Chernobyl

The Animals of Chernobyl

200 Haunting Videos of U.S. Nuclear Tests Now Declassified and Put Online

A is for Atom: Vintage PR Film for Nuclear Energy

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Brilliant Colors of the Great Barrier Revealed in a Historic Illustrated Book from 1893

Paul Simon’s famous lyric about everything looking worse in black and white
is hardly a universal truth, but when it comes to William Saville-Kent's groundbreaking 1893 book The Great Barrier Reef of Australia: its products and potentialitiesthe assertion may have some merit.

Saville-Kent, a naturalist whose work in various British aquariums eventually led to a gig rebuilding depleted Tasmanian oyster beds, fell hard for the colorful fish, bêche-de-mer, corals, sponges, turtles, and other marine species he encountered in Australia.

He photographed the Great Barrier Reef while serving in Queensland as Commissioner of Fisheries. 48 of his images were published in the aforementioned book, offering readers an unprecedented armchair tour of a coral reef, albeit in black and white.


While Saville-Kent definitely achieved his goal of furthering the public’s awareness of the reef, he also upstaged himself by including 16 color lithographs inspired by his original watercolors.

These plates, by London-based lithographers Riddle and Couchman—whose work usually ran toward portraits of well-born gentlemen—exude a lively Seussian appeal.

Saville-Kent’s carefully captured fish, echinoderms, and anemones literally pale in comparison to the bright specimens the lithographers, who presumably lacked his firsthand experience of the forms they were depicting, brought to such vibrant life in the back of the book.

These days, alas, the Great Barrier Reef resembles Saville-Kent's photos more closely than those gorgeous lithographs, the victim of back-to-back bleaching events brought on by pollution-related climate change.

Saville-Kent is buried at All Saints Churchin Milford-on-Sea, Hampshire, England. His grave is decorated with coral.

Browse a digital copy of The Great Barrier Reef of Australia: its products and potentialities here.

via The Public Domain Review

Related Content:

Ernst Haeckel’s Sublime Drawings of Flora and Fauna: The Beautiful Scientific Drawings That Influenced Europe’s Art Nouveau Movement (1889)

Two Million Wondrous Nature Illustrations Put Online by The Biodiversity Heritage Library

New Archive Digitizes 80,000 Historic Watercolor Paintings, the Medium Through Which We Documented the World Before Photography

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, June 17 for another monthly installment of her public domain-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Meet Gerda Taro, the First Female Photojournalist to Die on the Front Lines

Gerda Taro by Anonymous, via Wikimedia Commons

We may know a few names of historic women photographers, like Julia Margaret Cameron, Dorothea Lange, or Diane Arbus, but the significant presence of women in photography from its very beginnings doesn’t get much attention in the usual narrative, despite the fact that “by 1900,” as photographer Dawn Oosterhoff writes, census records in Britain and the U.S. showed that “there were more than 7000 professional women photographers,” a number that only grew as decades passed.

As photographic equipment became smaller, lighter, and more portable, photographers moved out into more challenging and dangerous situations. Among them were women who “fought tradition and were among the pioneer photojournalists,” working alongside men on the front lines of war zones around the world.

War photographers like Lee Miller—former Vogue model, Man Ray muse, and Surrealist artist—showed a side of war most people didn’t see, one in which women warriors, medical personnel, support staff, and workers, played significant roles and bore witness to mass suffering and acts of heroism.

Image via Flickr Creative Commons


Before Miller captured the devastation at the European front, the horrors of Dachau, and Hitler’s bathtub, another female war photographer, Gerda Taro, documented the front lines of the Spanish Civil War. “One of the world’s first and greatest war photographers,” writes Giles Trent at The Guardian, Taro “died while photographing a chaotic retreat after the Battle of Brunete, shortly after Franco’s troops had one a major victory,” just days away from her 27th birthday. She was the first female photojournalist to be killed in action on the frontline and a major star in France at the time of her death.

Woman Training for a Republican Militia, by Gerda Taro, via Wikimedia Commons

“On 1 August 1937,” notes a Magnum Photos bio, “thousands of people lined the streets of Paris to mourn the death” of Taro. The “26-year-old Jewish émigré from Leipzig… was eulogized as a courageous reporter who had sacrificed her life to bear witness to the suffering of civilians and troops…. The media proclaimed her a left-wing heroine, a martyr of the anti-fascist cause and a role model for young women everywhere.” Taro had fled to France in in 1933, after being arrested by the Nazis for distributing anti-fascist leaflets in Germany. She was determined to continue the fight in her new country.

Republican Soldiers at the Navacerrada Pass, by Gerda Taro, via Wikimedia Commons

Taro met another Jewish émigré, well-known Hungarian photographer Robert Capa, just getting his start at the time. The two became partners and lovers, arriving in Barcelona in 1936, “two-and-a-half weeks after the outbreak of the war.” Like Miller, Taro was drawn to women on the battlefield. In one of her first assignments, she documented militiawomen of the Unified Socialist Party of Catalonia training on a beach. “Motivated by a desire to raise awareness of the plight of Spanish civilians and the soldiers fighting for liberty,” her clear sympathies give her work depth and immediacy.

Republican Dinamiteros, in the Carabanchel Neighborhood of Madrid, by Gerda Taro, via Wikimedia Commons

Taro’s photographs “were widely reproduced in the French leftist press,” points out the International Center of Photography. She “incorporated the dynamic camera angles of New Vision photography as well as a physical and emotional closeness to her subject.” After she was crushed by a tank in 1937, many of her photographs were incorrectly credited to Capa, and she sank into obscurity. She has achieved renewed recognition in recent years, especially after a trove of 4,500 negatives containing work by her and Capa was discovered in Mexico City.

Although she had been warned away from the front, Taro “got into this conviction that she had to bear witness,” says biographer Jane Rogoyska, “The troops loved her and she kept pushing.” She paid with her life, died a hero, and was forgotten until recently. Her legacy is celebrated in Rogoyska’s book, a novel about her and Capa by Susana Fortes, an International Center of Photography exhibition, film projects in the works, and a Google Doodle last August on her birthday. Learn more about Taro’s life and see many more of her captivating images, at Magnum Photos.

Related Content:

Visit a New Digital Archive of 2.2 Million Images from the First Hundred Years of Photography

1,600 Rare Color Photographs Depict Life in the U.S During the Great Depression & World War II

Annie Leibovitz Teaches Photography in Her First Online Course

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Roads of Ancient Rome Visualized in the Style of Modern Subway Maps

Sasha Trubetskoy, an undergrad at U. Chicago, has created a "subway-style diagram of the major Roman roads, based on the Empire of ca. 125 AD." Drawing on Stanford’s ORBIS model, The Pelagios Project, and the Antonine Itinerary, Trubetskoy's map combines well-known historic roads, like the Via Appia, with lesser-known ones (in somes cases given imagined names). If you want to get a sense of scale, it would take, Trubetskoy tells us, "two months to walk on foot from Rome to Byzantium. If you had a horse, it would only take you a month."

You can view the map in a larger format here. And if you follow this link and send Trubetskoy a few bucks, he can email you a crisp PDF for printing. Find more focused, related maps by Trubetskoy right here:

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It's hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

Note: This map first appeared on our site back in 2017.

Related Content:

“The Wonderground Map of London Town,” the Iconic 1914 Map That Saved the World’s First Subway System

Designer Massimo Vignelli Revisits and Defends His Iconic 1972 New York City Subway Map

Fashionable 2,000-Year-Old Roman Shoe Found in a Well

The Rise & Fall of the Romans: Every Year Shown in a Timelapse Map Animation (753 BC -1479 AD)

See the Very First Solar Eclipse Captured on Film: A Magical Moment in Science and Filmmaking (1900)

The “conquest of space,” so to speak—the human understanding of and travel to the cosmos—has come about through a succession of great scientific minds, as well as some of the most interesting and accomplished people all around. We never seem to tire of learning about their devotion to mathematics, physics, medicine, and scientific discovery writ as large as possible. But sometimes the conquest of space has required the unique talents of magicians. From the ancient mages who excited human imagination about the stars for thousands of years, to alchemists like Isaac Newton and beyond.

Witness the strange career of Marvel Whiteside Parsons, better known as Jack Parsons: sci-fi fanatic, occultist, disciple of Aleister Crowley, and onetime magical partner of L. Ron Hubbard. Parsons is most famous for founding the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the research center that powers NASA. Then we have magician Nevil Maskelyne—son of magician John Nevil Maskelyne, and possible descendent, so he said, of the fifth British Royal Astronomer, “also named Nevil Maskelyne,” writes Jason Daley at Smithsonian. Maskelyne the very much younger documented the first total solar eclipse ever captured on film.

Granted, he was a stage magician, not a follower of “The Great Beast 666.” Maskelyne's interest in showmanship and spectacle drew him not to sex magic but to filmmaking and astronomy, interests he combined when he made the first film ever of a total solar eclipse. Nowadays, millions of people have the means to make such a film in their pocket, provided they have a good view of the infrequent cosmic event (and do not ever look at it directly). In 1900, when Maskelyne undertook the challenge, filmmaking was just emerging from infancy into toddlerhood.

The Lumière brothers, often credited as the first filmmakers, had held their first public screening only five years earlier. They called their early productions actualités, essentially "reality films." Some of these, like the legendary L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat, famously shocked and terrified audiences out of their seats. In 1900, film was still a kind of magic, and “like magic,” says Bryony Dixon, curator at the British Film Institute (BFI), film “combines both art and science.” The story of Maskelyne’s achievement is “a story about magic.”

Maskelyne’s love for film inspired in him a passion for astronomy as well, and he eventually became a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. Unfortunately, his first cinematic contribution to the field disappeared, never to be seen again. Two years before he shot the footage above from the ground in North Carolina on May 28, 1900, on a venture funded by the British Astronomical Association, Maskelyne traveled to India to document a similar event. The film cannister was stolen on his return trip home

But he had learned what he needed to, having designed “a special telescopic adapter for a movie camera,” just as he and his father had earlier improved upon the film projector by building their own. Maskelyne had his spectacle. He showed the film in his theater, and the Royal Astronomical Society ensured that we could see it almost 120 years later by archiving a minute of the footage. Thanks to a partnership between the British Film Institute and the RAS, the film has been restored, digitized in 4K resolution, and made freely available online as part of a trove of Victorian-era films” just released by the BFI.

While thousands, maybe millions, of different moving images of 2017's solar eclipse exist on social media accounts, of this event 120 years ago there has existed only one. Now that brief moment in time can reach millions of people in an instant, and exist in an infinite number of perfect copies, a phenomenon that might have seemed in 1900 like an advanced form of magic.

via Smithsonian

Related Content:

Moons, Moons, They’re Everywhere. The Unexpected Shadows of the Solar Eclipse

Last Night’s Solar Eclipse in a 60-Second, 700-Picture Timelapse Video

Solar Eclipse Seen From Outer Space

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Marie Curie Became the First Woman to Win a Nobel Prize, the First Person to Win Twice, and the Only Person in History to Win in Two Different Sciences

For most of scientific history, women who made contributions to various fields have been sidelined or ignored in favor of male colleagues, who reaped fame, professional recognition, and cash rewards that come with prestigious prizes like the Nobel. Cornell historian of science Margaret Rossiter coined the term “The Matilda Effect” to describe sexist bias in the sciences. Rossiter’s work and popular reappraisals like book-turned-film Hidden Figures have inspired other women in academia to search for forgotten female scientists, and to find them, literally, in footnotes.

When systematic discrimination limits opportunities for any group, those who do receive recognition, the exceptions to the rule, must often be truly exceptional to succeed. There has been little doubt, both in her lifetime and in the many decades afterward, that Marie Curie was such a person. Although forced to study science in secret at a clandestine “Floating University” in her native Poland—since the universities refused to admit women—Curie (born Marie Salomea Sklodowska in 1867) would achieve such renown in her field that she was awarded not one, but two Nobel Prizes.

Curie and her husband Pierre shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with Antoine Henri Becquerel, discoverer of radioactivity, in 1903. The second prize, in Chemistry, was hers alone in 1911, “in recognition of her services to the advancement of chemistry by the discovery of the elements radium and polonium, by the isolation of radium and the study of the nature and compounds of this remarkable element.” Curie was not only the first woman to win a Nobel, but she was also the first person to win twice, and the only person to win in two different sciences.

These are but a handful of achievements in a string of firsts for Curie: denied positions in Poland, she earned a Ph.D. in France, awarded the degree in 1903 by the Sorbonne, the same year she won her first Nobel. “Her examiners,” notes the site Famous Scientists, “were of the view that she had made the greatest contribution to science ever found in a Ph.D. thesis.” Three years later, after Pierre was killed in an accident, Marie was offered his professorship and became the first female professor at the University of Paris.

Curie succeeded not in the absence of, but in spite of the sexist obstacles placed in her path at nearly every stage in her career. After she received her doctorate, the Curies were invited to the Royal Institution in London. Only Pierre was permitted to speak. That same year, the Nobel Committee decided to honor only her husband and Becquerel. The Academy relented when Pierre protested. Curie fell victim to a wave of xenophobia and anti-Semitism (though she was not Jewish) that swept through France in the 1900s, most famously in the so-called “Dreyfus Affair.”

In 1911, the year of her second Nobel, Curie was passed over for membership in the French Academy of Sciences. It would take another 51 years before the first woman, Marguerite Perey, a former doctoral student of Curie, would be elected to that body. That same year, Curie was persecuted relentlessly by the French press, the public, and her scientific rivals after it was revealed that she had had a brief affair with physicist Paul Langevin, one of Pierre Curie’s former students.

But no matter how many men in positions of power wanted to deter Curie, there always seemed to be more influential scientists and politicians who recognized the supreme value of her work and the need to help her continue it. After her second Nobel Prize, her native country finally recognized her with the offer to direct her own laboratory in Warsaw. Curie turned it down to focus on directing the Curie Laboratory in the Radium Institute of the University of Paris, which she founded in 1914, a major achievement and, again, only a small part of her legacy.

Curie is known, of course, foremost for her exceptional scientific work, but also for opening doors for women in science all over the world, though much of that door-opening may only have happened decades after her death in 1934, and much of it hasn’t happened at all yet. Incidentally, in the following year, the Curies’ daughter Irène Joliot-Curie and her husband Frédéric Joliot-Curie were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Since then, only two other women have claimed that honor, and only two women, including Marie Curie, have won the Prize in physics, out of 203 winners total.

There may be nothing yet like gender parity in the sciences, but those who know where to look can find the names of dozens of women scientists running women-owned companies, women-founded research institutes and academic departments, and, like the famous Curies, making major contributions to chemistry. Perhaps not long from now, many of those exceptional scientists will be as well-known and widely celebrated as Marie Curie.

via Fantastic Facts

Related Content:

Marie Curie Attended a Secret, Underground “Flying University” When Women Were Banned from Polish Universities

Read the Uplifting Letter That Albert Einstein Sent to Marie Curie During a Time of Personal Crisis (1911)

How American Women “Kickstarted” a Campaign to Give Marie Curie a Gram of Radium, Raising $120,000 in 1921

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

More in this category... »