Carl Sagan Returns to His Old Sixth-Grade Classroom to Turn a New Generation of Kids On To Science

All throughout his career, Carl Sagan cited the events in his formative years that set him on the road to becoming, well, Carl Sagan: the introduction to "skepticism and wonder" provided by his parents; his visit to the 1939 New York World's Fair; his first trips to the public library, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Hayden Planetarium; his discovery of Astounding Science Fiction Magazine and its fantastic visions undergirded by genuine knowledge. That last happened around the same time he entered the sixth grade at David A. Boody Junior High School, where he would eventually return, decades later, to teach the lesson seen in the video above.

"As a child, it was my immense good fortune to have parents and a few teachers who encouraged my curiosity," Sagan says in voiceover. "This was my sixth-grade classroom. I came back here one afternoon to remember what it was like." Anyone watching him handing out the "breathtaking pictures of other worlds that had been radioed back by the Voyager spacecraft" and addressing the excited students' questions will understand that, in addition to his formidable hunger for knowledge and deep understanding of his subjects, Sagan also possessed a quality rare in the scientific community: the ability and willingness to talk about science clearly and engagingly, and transmit his excitement about science, to absolutely anyone.

The clip also provides a sense of what it was like to learn directly from Sagan. In the interview clip above, no less a science guy than Bill Nye talks about his own experience taking Sagan's classes at Cornell in the 1970s. "If you saw his series Cosmos — the original Cosmos — his lectures were like those television shows," says Nye. He goes on to tell the story of meeting Sagan again, at his ten-year class reunion. "I said I want to do this show about science for kids. He said, 'Focus on pure science. Kids resonate to pure science.' That was his verb, resonate." And so, when Bill Nye the Science Guy debuted a few years later, it spent most of its time not on the fruits of science — "bridges, dams, and civil engineering works and gears" and so on — but on science itself.

Carl Sagan co-founded the Planetary Society in 1980. Nye, drawn by its mission of "empowering the world's citizens to advance planetary science and exploration," joined that same year. After speaking at Sagan's memorial a decade and a half later, Nye found himself on its board of directors. Then he became Vice President, and then "there was a dinner party, there was wine or something, and now I'm the CEO." In that way and others, Nye continues Sagan's legacy, and Nye hardly counts as Sagan's only successor. "This is how we know nature," as Nye puts Sagan's view of science. "It's the best idea humans have ever come up with." That view, whether expressed in Sagan's own work or that of the countless many he has directly or indirectly influenced, will surely continue to inspire generations of learners, inside or outside the classroom.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities 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 or on Facebook.

Optical Scanning Technology Lets Researchers Recover Lost Indigenous Languages from Old Wax Cylinder Recordings

In an 1878 North American Review description of his new invention, the phonograph, which transcribed sound on wax-covered metal cylinders, Thomas Edison suggested a number of possible uses: “Letter writing and all kinds of dictation without the aid of a stenographer,” “Phonographic books” for the blind, “the teaching of elocution,” and, of course, “Reproduction of music.” He did not, visionary though he was, conceive of one extraordinary use to which wax cylinders might be put—the recovery or reconstruction of extinct and endangered indigenous languages and cultures in California.

And yet, 140 years after Edison’s invention, this may be the most culturally significant use of the wax cylinder to date. “Among the thousands of wax cylinders” at UC Berkeley’s Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, writes Hyperallergic’s Allison Meier, “are songs and spoken-word recordings in 78 indigenous languages of California. Some of these languages, recorded between 1900 and 1938, no longer have living speakers.”

Such is the case with Yahi, a language spoken by a man called “Ishi,” who was supposedly the last surviving member of his culture when anthropologist Alfred Kroeber met him in 1911. Kroeber recorded nearly 6 hours of Ishi’s speech on 148 wax cylinders, many of which are now badly degraded.

“The existing versions” of these artifacts “sound terrible,” says Berkeley linguist Andrew Garrett in the National Science Foundation video at the top, but through digital reconstruction much of this rare audio can be restored. Garrett describes the project—supported jointly by the NSF and NEH—as a “digital repatriation of cultural heritage.” Using an optical scanning technique, scientists can recover data from these fragile materials without further damaging them. You can see audio preservationist Carl Haber describe the advanced methods above.

The project represents a scientific breakthrough and also a stark reminder of the genocide and humiliation of indigenous people in the American west. When he was found, “starving, disoriented and separated from his tribe,” writes Jessica Jimenez at The Daily Californian, Ishi was “believed to be the last Yahi man in existence because of the Three Knolls Massacre in 1866, in which the entire Yahi tribe was thought to have been slaughtered.” (According to another Berkeley scholar his story may be more complicated.) He was “put on display at the museum, where outsiders could watch him make arrows and describe aspects of Yahi culture.” He never revealed his name (“Ishi” means “man”) and died of tuberculosis in 1916.

The wax cylinders will allow scholars to recover other languages, stories, and songs from peoples destroyed or decimated by the 19th century “Indian Wars.” Between 1900 and 1940, Kroeber and his colleagues recorded “Native Californians from many regions and cultures,” the Berkeley project page explains, “speaking and singing; reciting histories, narratives and prayers, listing names for places and objects among many other things, all in a wide variety of languages. Many of the languages recorded on the cylinders have transformed, fallen out of use, or are no longer spoken at all, making this collection a unique and invaluable resource for linguists and contemporary community members hoping to learn about or revitalize languages, or retrieve important piece of cultural heritage.”

via Hyperallergic

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

The Plate Tectonic Evolution of the Earth Over 500 Million Years: Animated Video Takes You from Pangea, to 250 Million Years in the Future

Christopher R. Scotese, a geologist affiliated with Northwestern University, has created an animation showing "the plate tectonic evolution of the Earth from the time of Pangea, 240 million years ago, to the formation of Pangea Proxima, 250 million years in the future." The blurb accompanying the video on Youtube adds:

The animation starts with the modern world then winds it way back to 240 million years ago (Triassic). The animation then reverses direction, allowing us to see how Pangea rifted apart to form the modern continents and ocean basins. When the animation arrives back at the present-day, it continues for another 250 million years until the formation of the next Pangea, "Pangea Proxima".

According to an article published by NASA back in 2000, Scotese's visualization of the future is something of an educated "guesstimate."  "We don't really know the future, obviously," he says. "All we can do is make predictions of how plate motions will continue, what new things might happen, and where it will all end up." You can see his predictions play out above.

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Henrietta Lacks Gets Immortalized in a Portrait: It’s Now on Display at the National Portrait Gallery

In my childhood, I heard stories about Henrietta Lacks' miraculous cells. I heard these stories because she happened to have been my grandmother’s cousin. But this was just oral lore, I thought at first, legendary and implausible. Cells don’t just keep growing indefinitely. Nothing is immortal. That’s a safe assumption in most every other case, but millions of people now know what only a relatively self-contained community of researchers, doctors, biology students, and, eventually, the Lacks family once did: Henrietta’s cervical cancer cells continued to grow and multiply after her death in 1951. They may, indeed, do so forever.

The once anonymous cell line, called HeLa, has provided researchers worldwide with invaluable medical data. Henrietta herself went unrecognized and unremembered until fairly recently. That all changed after Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, based on an earlier series of articles, appeared in 2010 to great acclaim. Since the publication of Skloot’s bestseller, the story of Henrietta and the Lacks family has further achieved renown in a 2017 film version starring Oprah Winfrey.

Suffice it say, seeing Henrietta arrive on the pop cultural stage has been a strange experience. (One made even weirder by other media moments, like indie band Yeasayer and former Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra releasing songs about her and her cells.) The injustices of Henrietta’s story are now well-known. She was poor and received substandard medical treatment. Her cells were harvested without her knowledge, and after her death, no one notified the family about the worldwide use of her cells for biomedical research. That is, until doctors did research on her children in the 70s, publishing family medical records without consent and gathering more data because the HeLa cells had contaminated other cell lines.

She has “become one of the most powerful symbols for informed consent in the history of science,” Nela Ulaby writes at NPR. She is also a symbol, says Bill Pretzer, senior curator at the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), “that history can be remade, re-remembered.” To that end, Henrietta has been immortalized as a whole human being, not just the source of extraordinarily immortal cells. Her portrait, by African-American artist Kadir Nelson, now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, a representation of both the historical figure and her world-historical biological legacy.

Drawing on the photograph that adorns the cover of Skloot’s book, the portrait shows her “just like they said she was in life,” says her granddaughter Jeri Lacks-Whye, “happy, outgoing, giving,” and stylishly dressed. The two missing buttons on her dress represent the cells taken from her body, and the pattern behind her, which “almost looks like wallpaper,” says National Portrait Gallery curator Dorothy Moss, is “actually representative of her cells.” Other tributes, notes Ulaby, include a “high school for students interested in medicine” and "a minor planet whirling in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.” The cells have also generated billions of dollars in profit.

In life, she could never have imagined this strange kind of fame and fortune. The HeLa cells were instrumental in the development of the polio vaccine and research in cloning, gene mapping, and in vitro fertilization. They have traveled into space and around the world hundreds of times. The story of the person they came from, says Skloot in a 2010 interview, reminds us that “there are human beings behind every biological sample used in the laboratory… but they’re usually left out of the equation.” Making those lives an essential part of the conversation in medical research can help keep that research ethically honest, equitable, and, one hopes, based in serving human needs over corporate greed.

The portrait will remain at the National Portrait Gallery until November 4th, after which it will return to the NMAAHC.

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

View and Download Nearly 60,000 Maps from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)

By reasons of parenting, I’ve become well acquainted with a song—perhaps you know it?— called “Fifty Nifty United States,” taught to schoolchildren as a geographical mnemonic device. The lyrics mention that “each individual state contributes a quality that is great.” What are some great qualities of, say, Delaware, New Mexico, or South Dakota? We aren’t told. Hey, it’s enough that a five or six-year-old can remember “shout ‘em, scout ‘em, tell all about ‘em” before rattling off an alphabetical list of “ev’ry state in the good old U.S.A.”

But if you hail from the U.S., you can enumerate many contributions from a few nifty states, whether culinary delights, historical events, writers, artists, sports heroes, etc. And most everyone’s got stories about visiting natural wonders, hiking mountain trails, fording rivers, gazing upon breathtaking vistas.

We may be occasional tourists, travel enthusiasts, or experts, but whatever our level of experience in the country, it’s probably kid stuff compared to the work of the scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Established by Congress in 1879, this august body has documented U.S. lands and waters for 125 years, gathering an incredible amount of detailed information as “the nation’s largest water, earth, and biological science and civilian mapping agency.” Thanks to the Libre Map Project, the general public can view and download nearly 60,000 of those topographical maps, from all fifty states, and nearly every region within each of those states. See Colorado’s Pike National Forest and surrounding environs, at the top, for example, created from aerial photographs taken in 1950. Above, see a map of San Francisco, compiled in 1956, then revised in 1993 and further edited in 1996.

And just above, the devastating Kīlauea Volcano, in a map compiled from aerial photos taken in 1954 and 1961. (See the USGS site for the latest info about the ongoing eruption there.) Below, a nifty map of New York City, created “by photogrammetric methods from aerial photographs taken [in] 1954 and planetable surveys [in] 1955. Revised from aerial photographs taken [in] 1966.” Google maps may be more current, but these USGS maps have an aura of scientific authority around them, evidence of painstaking surveys, checked and rechecked over the decades by hundreds of pairs of hands and eyes.

Browsing the archive can be a challenge, since the maps are catalogued by coordinates rather than place names, but you can enter the names of specific locations in the search field. Also, be advised, the maps “are best used with global positioning software,” the archive tells visitors. Nonetheless, you can click on the first download option for “Multi Page Processed TIFF” to pull up a huge, downloadable image. Enter the archive here and get to scouting.

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

The Ups & Downs of Ancient Rome’s Economy–All 1,900 Years of It–Get Documented by Pollution Traces Found in Greenland’s Ice

When we see stories pop up involving scientific findings in glacier ice, we might brace for unpleasant environmental news about the future. But a paper published just recently in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences instead reveals fascinating findings about the distant past—the history of ancient Rome between 1100 B.C.E. to 800 C.E. Historians know this 1,900-year period through archaeological and literary evidence. Now climate scientists have provided a treasury of new data to help substantiate or revise scholarly understandings of Rome’s economic rises and falls, by measuring the stratifications of lead pollution in a roughly 400-meter ice core from Greenland.

Why lead? “It’s a proxy for coin production,” says Seth Bernard, professor of ancient history at the University of Toronto. Roman currency, the denarius, was made from silver, mined primarily on the Iberian Peninsula. “But these mines didn’t excavate pure silver,” notes Robinson Meyer at The Atlantic. “Instead, they unearthed an ore of silver, lead, and copper that had to be smelted into silver. This process filled the air with lead pollution,” which eventually made its way on air currents to Greenland, where “storms deposited lead-tainted snow or sleet over the Arctic island.” New layers formed upon the old, each one preserved for posterity.

In the mid-1990s, scientists began drilling Greenland’s ice sheet in the North Greenland Ice core Project (NGRIP). At the time, a team attempted a similar analysis on the lead levels and their correspondence to ancient coinage, “which used a similar but rudimentary technique,” Meyer writes. But this study only drew from 18 data points. By contrast, the new research “made 25,000 different measurements of the ice core.” Improved technology has refined the measurement process, allowing researchers to detect “the presence of 35 different elements and chemicals at once,” and to tie their observations to specific years, or fairly close to it, anyway. The chart above shows the fluctuations in lead emissions over the almost 2000-year span.

One of the study’s authors, Joseph McConnell, estimates the margin of error as within one or two years. “That’s pretty good,” he says, “a lot better than what archaeologists are used to, I can tell you that.” This allows the team of climate scientists, archaeologists, and historians to match their observations about lead levels to known historical events. As The New York Times reports, “lead emissions rose in periods of peace and prosperity, such as the Pax Romana, which ran from 27 BC to 180 A.D. and dropped during the civil wars that preceded the Pax and the rise of the emperor Augustus. There were also dramatic drops that coincided with the Antonine plague of 165-180 A.D., thought to have been small pox, and the Cyprian plague, cause uncertain, of 250-270 A.D.”

The data, notes The Economist, “provide a new window onto the workings of the ancient economy…. Not all of the lead trapped in the glacier comes from silver minding, but much of it does,” and scientists can make informed guesses about just how much. Many unanswered questions remain. “What we’d love to have is a document that says Rome had a state monetary policy,” says Bernard. The empire's specific economic policies are largely a mystery, but the ice core samples provide a wealth of new evidence for the increase and decrease in currency production, and ever-more refined technologies will allow for even more data to emerge from the pollutants trapped in glacial ice in the near future.

via The Atlantic

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

The Muggletonians, an Obscure Religious Sect, Made Beautiful Maps That Put the Earth at the Center of the Solar System (1846)

In 1975, the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend published his highly contrarian Against Method, a book in which he argued that “science is essentially an anarchic enterprise,” and as such, ought to be accorded no more privilege than any other way of knowing in a democratic society. Motivated by concerns about science as a domineering ideology, he argued the historical messiness of scientific practice, in which theories come about not through elegant logical thinking but often by complete accident, through copious trial and error, intuition, imagination, etc. Only in hindsight do we impose restrictions and tidy rules and narratives on revolutionary discoveries.

Several years later, in the third, 1993 edition of the book, Feyerebend observed with alarm the same widespread anti-science bias that Carl Sagan wrote of two years later in Demon-Haunted World. “Times have changed,” he wrote, “Considering some tendencies in U.S. education… and in the world at large I think that reason should now be given greater weight.”

Feyerabend died the following year, but I wonder how he might revise or qualify a 2018 edition of the book, or whether he would republish it at all. Politically-motivated science denialism reigns. Indeed, a blithe denial of any observable reality, aided by digital technology, has become a dystopian new norm. But as the philosopher also commented, such circumstances may “occur frequently today... but may disappear tomorrow.”

In the recorded history of human inquiry across cultures and civilizations, we see ideas we call scientific co-existing with what we recognize as pseudo- and anti-scientific notions. The differences aren’t always very clear at the time. And then, sometimes, they are. During the so-called Age of Reason, when the development of the modern sciences in Europe slowly eclipsed other modes of explanation, one obscure group of contrarians persisted in almost comically stubborn unreason. Calling themselves the Muggletonians, the Protestant sect—like those today who deny climate change and evolution—resisted an overwhelming consensus of empirical science, the Copernican view of the solar system, despite all available evidence the contrary. In so doing, they left behind a series of “beautiful celestial maps,” notes Greg Miller at National Geographic, some of which resemble William Blake’s visual poetry.

The sect began in 1651, when a London tailor named John Reeve “claimed to have received a message from God” naming his cousin Lodowicke Muggleton as the “’last messenger for a great work unto this bloody unbelieving world.’... One of the main principles of their faith, a later observer wrote, was that ‘There is no Devil but the unclean Reason of men.’” Their view of the universe, based, of course, on scripture, resembles the Medieval Catholic view that Galileo attempted to correct, but their principle antagonist was not the Italian polymath or the earlier Renaissance astronomer Copernicus, but the great scientific mind of the time, Isaac Newton, whom Muggletonians railed against into the 19th and even 20th century. Muggletonians, Miller writes,” had remarkable longevity—the last known member died in 1979 after donating the sect’s archive of books and papers… to the British Library.”

These plates come from an 1846 book called Two Systems of Astronomy. Written by Muggletonian Isaac Frost, it “pitted the scientific system of Isaac Newton—which held that the gravitational pull of the sun holds the Earth and other planets in orbit around it—against an Earth-centered universe based on a literal interpretation of the Bible.” The plate above, for example, “attempts to show the absurdity of the Newtonian system by depicting our solar system as one of many in an infinite and godless universe.” Ironically, in attempting to ridicule Newton (who was himself a pseudo-scientist and Biblical literalist in other ways), the Muggletonians stumbled upon the view of modern astronomers, who extrapolate a mind-boggling number of possible solar systems in an observable universe of over 100 billion galaxies (though these systems are not enclosed cells crammed together side-by-side). Another plate, below, shows Frost’s depiction of the hated Newtonian system, with the Earth, Mars, and Jupiter orbiting the Sun.

The other maps, further up, all represent the Muggletonian view. Historian of science Francis Reid describes it thus:

According to Frost, Scripture clearly states that the Sun, the Moon and the Stars are embedded in a firmament made of congealed water and revolve around the Earth, that Heaven has a physical reality above and beyond the stars, and that the planets and the Moon do not reflect the Sun's rays but are themselves independent sources of light.

Frost gave lectures at “establishments set up for the education of artisans and other workmen.” It seems he didn’t attract much attention and was frequently heckled by audience members. Like flat earthers, Muggletonians were treated as cranks, and unlike today’s religious anti-science crusaders, they never had the power to influence public policy or education. For this reason, perhaps, it is easy to see them as quaintly humorous. Frost’s maps, as Miller writes, “remain strangely alluring” for both their artistic quality and their astonishingly determined credulity. The plates are now part of the massive David Rumsey collection, which houses thousands of rare historical maps. For another fascinating look at religious cartography, see Miller’s National Geographic post “mapping the Apocalypse.”

via National Geographic

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

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