The Little-Known Female Scientists Who Mapped 400,000 Stars Over a Century Ago: An Introduction to the “Harvard Computers”

Image via Wikimedia Commons

As team names go, the Harvard Computers has kind of an oddball ring to it, but it’s far preferable to Pickering’s Harem, as the female scientists brought in under the Harvard Observatory’s male director were collectively referred to early on in their 40-some years of service to the institution.

A possibly apocryphal story has it that Director Edward Pickering was so frustrated by his male assistants’ pokey pace in examining 1000s of photographic plates bearing images of stars spotted by telescopes in Harvard and the southern hemisphere, he declared his maid could do a better job.

If true, it was no idle threat.




In 1881, Pickering did indeed hire his maid, Williamina Fleming, to review the plates with a magnifying glass, cataloguing the brightness of stars that showed up as smudges or grey or black spots. She also calculated—aka computed—their positions, and, when possible, chemical composition, color, and temperature.

The newly single 23-year-old mother was not uneducated. She had served as a teacher for years prior to emigrating from Scotland, but when her husband abandoned her in Boston, she couldn’t afford to be fussy about the kind of employment she sought. Working at the Pickerings meant secure lodging and a small income.

Not that the promotion represented a financial windfall for Fleming and the more than 80 female computers who joined her over the next four decades. They earned between 25 to 50 cents an hour, half of what a man in the same position would have been paid.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

At one point Fleming, who as a single mother was quite aware that she was burdened with “all housekeeping cares …in addition to those of providing the means to meet their expenses,” addressed the matter of her low wages with Pickering, leaving her to vent in her diary:

I am immediately told that I receive an excellent salary as women’s salaries stand.… Does he ever think that I have a home to keep and a family to take care of as well as the men?… And this is considered an enlightened age!

Harvard certainly got its money’s worth from its female workforce when you consider that the classification systems they developed led to identification of nearly 400,000 stars.

Fleming, who became responsible for hiring her coworkers, was the first to discover white dwarfs and the Horsehead Nebula in Orion, in addition to 51 other nebulae, 10 novae, and 310 variable stars.

An impressive achievement, but another diary entry belies any glamour we might be tempted to assign:

From day to day my duties at the Observatory are so nearly alike that there will be little to describe outside ordinary routine work of measurement, examination of photographs, and of work involved in the reduction of these observations.

Pickering believed that the female computers should attend conferences and present papers, but for the most part, they were kept so busy analyzing photographic plates, they had little time left over to explore their own areas of interest, something that might have afforded them work of a more theoretical nature.

Another diary entry finds Fleming yearning to get out from under a mountain of busy work:

Looking after the numerous pieces of routine work which have to be kept progressing, searching for confirmation of objects discovered elsewhere, attending to scientific correspondence, getting material in form for publication, etc, has consumed so much of my time during the past four years that little is left for the particular investigations in which I am especially interested.

And yet the work of Fleming and other notable computers such as Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Annie Jump Cannon is still helping scientists make sense of the heavens, so much so that Harvard is seeking volunteers for Project PHaEDRA, to help transcribe their logbooks and notebooks to make them full-text searchable on the NASA Astrophysics Data System. Learn how you can get involved here.

Related Content: 

“The Matilda Effect”: How Pioneering Women Scientists Have Been Denied Recognition and Written Out of Science History

Women Scientists Launch a Database Featuring the Work of 9,000 Women Working in the Sciences

Real Women Talk About Their Careers in Science

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Color That May Have Killed Napoleon: Scheele’s Green

“Either the wallpaper goes, or I do.” —Oscar Wilde

Looking to repel bed bugs and rats?

Decorate your bedroom à la Napoleon’s final home on the damp island of Saint Helena.

Those in a position to know suggest that vermin shy away from yellowish-greens such as that favored by the Emperor because they “resemble areas of intense lighting.”

We’d like to offer an alternate theory.

Could it be that the critters’ ancestors passed down a cellular memory of the perils of arsenic?

Napoleon, like thousands of others, was smitten with a hue known as Scheele’s Green, named for Carl Wilhelm Scheele, the German-Swedish pharmaceutical chemist who discovered oxygen, chlorine, and unfortunately, a gorgeous, toxic green pigment that’s also a cupric hydrogen arsenite.




Scheele’s Green, aka Schloss Green, was cheap and easy to produce, and quickly replaced the less vivid copper carbonate based green dyes that had been in use prior to the mid 1770s.

The color was an immediate hit when it made its appearance, showing up in artificial flowers, candles, toys, fashionable ladies’ clothing, soap, beauty products, confections, and wallpaper.

A month before Napoleon died, he included the following phrase in his will: My death is premature. I have been assassinated by the English oligopoly and their hired murderer…”

His exit at 51 was indeed untimely, but perhaps the wallpaper, and not the English oligopoly, is the greater culprit, especially if it was hung with arsenic-laced paste, to further deter rats.

When Scheele’s Green wallpaper, like the striped pattern in Napoleon’s bathroom, became damp or moldy, the pigment in it metabolized, releasing poisonous arsenic-laden vapors.

Napoleon’s First Valet Louis-Joseph Marchand recalled the “childish joy” with which the emperor jumped into the tub where he relished soaking for long spells:

The bathtub was a tremendous oak chest lined with lead. It required an exceptional quantity of water, and one had to go a half mile away and transport it in a barrel.

Baths also figured in Second Valet Louis Étienne Saint-Denis‘ recollections of his master’s illness:

His remedies consisted only of warm napkins applied to his side, to baths, which he took frequently, and to a diet which he observed from time to time.

Saint-Denis’s recall seems to have had some lacunae. According to a post in conjunction with the American Museum of Natural History’s Power of Poison exhibit:

In Napoleon’s case, arsenic was likely just one of many compounds taxing an already troubled system. In the course of treatments for a variety of symptoms—swollen legs, abdominal pain, jaundice, vomiting, weakness—Napoleon was subjected to a smorgasbord of other toxic substances. He was said to consume large amounts of a sweet apricot-based drink containing hydrocyanic acid. He had been given tarter emetic, an antimonal compound, by a Corsican doctor. (Like arsenic, antimony would also help explain the preserved state of his body at exhumation.) Two days before his death, his British doctors gave him a dose of calomel, or mercurous chloride, after which he collapsed into a stupor and never recovered. 

As Napoleon was vomiting a blackish liquid and expiring, factory and garment workers who handled Scheele’s Green dye and its close cousin, Paris Green, were suffering untold mortifications of the flesh, from hideous lesions, ulcers and extreme gastric distress to heart disease and cancer.

Fashion-first women who spent the day corseted in voluminous green dresses were keeling over from skin-to-arsenic contact. Their seamstresses’ green fingers were in wretched condition.

In 2008, an Italian team tested strands of Napoleon’s hair from four points in his life—childhood, exile, his death, and the day thereafter. They determined that all the samples contained roughly 100 times the arsenic levels of contemporary people in a control group.

Napoleon’s son and wife, Empress Josephine, also had noticeably elevated arsenic levels.

Had we been alive and living in Europe back then, ours likely would have been too.

All that green!

But what about the wallpaper?

A scrap purportedly from the dining room, where Napoleon was relocated shortly before death, was found by a woman in Norfolk, England, pasted into a family scrapbook above the handwritten caption, This small piece of paper was taken off the wall of the room in which the spirit of Napoleon returned to God who gave it.

In 1980, she contacted chemist David Jones, whom she had recently heard on BBC Radio discussing vaporous biochemistry and Victorian wallpaper. She agreed to let him test the scrap using non-destructive x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy. The result?

.12 grams of arsenic per square meter. (Wallpapers containing 0.6 to 0.015 grams per square meter were determined to be hazardous.)

Dr. Jones described watching the arsenic levels peaking on the lab’s print out as “a crazy, wonderful moment.” He reiterated that the house in which Napoleon was imprisoned was “notoriously damp,” making it easy for a 19th century fan to peel off a souvenir in “an inspired act of vandalism.”

Death by wallpaper and other environmental factors is definitely less cloak and dagger than assassination by the English oligopoly, hired murderer, and other conspiracy theories that had thrived on the presence of arsenic in samples of Napoleon’s hair.

As Dr. Jones recalled:

…several historians were upset by my claim that it was all an accident of decor…Napoleon himself feared he was dying of stomach cancer, the disease which had killed his father; and indeed his autopsy revealed that his stomach was very damaged. It had at least one big ulcer…My feeling is that Napoleon would have died in any case. His arsenical wallpaper might merely have hastened the event by a day or so. Murder conspiracy theorists will have to find new evidence! 

We can’t resist mentioning that when the emperor was exhumed and shipped back to France, 19 years after his death, his corpse showed little or no decomposition.

Green continues to be a noxious color when humans attempt to reproduce it in the physical realm. As Alice Rawthorn observed The New York Times:

The cruel truth is that most forms of the color green, the most powerful symbol of sustainable design, aren’t ecologically responsible, and can be damaging to the environment.

Take a deeper dive into Napoleon’s wallpaper with an educational packet for educators prepared by chemist David Jones and Hendrik Ball.

via Messy Nessy

Related Content: 

Why Is Napoleon’s Hand Always in His Waistcoat?: The Origins of This Distinctive Pose Explained

Napoleon’s English Lessons: How the Military Leader Studied English to Escape the Boredom of Life in Exile

Napoleon’s Disastrous Invasion of Russia Detailed in an 1869 Data Visualization: It’s Been Called “the Best Statistical Graphic Ever Drawn”

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How the Food We Eat Affects Our Brain: Learn About the “MIND Diet”

We humans did a number on ourselves, as they say, when we invented agriculture, global trade routes, refrigeration, pasteurization, and so forth. Yes, we made it so that millions of people around the world could have abundant food. We’ve also created food that’s full of empty calories and lacking in essential nutrients. Fortunately, in places where healthy alternatives are plentiful, attitudes toward food have changed, and nutrition has become a paramount concern.

“As a society, we are comfortable with the idea that we feed our bodies,” says neuroscientist Lisa Mosconi. We research foods that cause inflammation and increase cancer risk, etc. But we are “much less aware,” says Mosconi—author of Brain Food: The Surprising Science of Eating for Cognitive Power—“that we’re feeding our brains too. Parts of the foods we eat will end up being the very fabric of our brains…. Put simply: Everything in the brain that isn’t made by the brain itself is ‘imported’ from the food we eat.”




We learn much more about the constituents of brain matter in the animated TED-Ed lesson above by Mia Nacamulli. Amino acids, fats, proteins, traces of micronutrients, and glucose—”the brain is, of course, more than the sum of its nutritional parts, but each component does have a distinct impact on functioning, development, mood, and energy.” Post-meal blahs or insomnia can be closely correlated with diet.

What should we be eating for brain health? Luckily, current research falls well in line with what nutritionists and doctors have been suggesting we eat for overall health. Anne Linge, registered dietitian and certified diabetes care and education specialist at the Nutrition Clinic at the University of Washington Medical Center-Roosevelt, recommends what researchers have dubbed the MIND diet, a combination of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet.

“The Mediterranean diet focuses on lots of vegetables, fruits, nuts and heart-healthy oils,” Linge says. “When we talk about the DASH diet, the purpose is to stop high blood pressure, so we’re looking at more servings of fruits and vegetables, more fiber and less saturated fat.” The combination of the two, reports Angela Cabotaje at the University of Washington Medicine blog Right as Rain, results in a diet high in folate, carotenoids, vitamin E, flavonoids and antioxidants. “All of these things seem to have potential benefits to the cognitive function,” says Linge, who breaks MIND foods down into the 10 categories below:

Leafy greens (6x per week)
Vegetables (1x per day)
Nuts (5x per week)
Berries (2x per week)
Beans (3x per week)
Whole grains (3x per day)
Fish (1x per week)
Poultry (2x per week)
Olive oil (regular use)
Red wine (1x per day)

As you’ll note, red meat, dairy, sweets, and fried foods aren’t included: researchers recommend we consume these much less often. Harvard’s Healthbeat blog further breaks down some of these categories and includes tea and coffee, a welcome addition for people who prefer caffeinated beverages to alcohol.

“You might think of the MIND diet as a list of best practices,” says Linge. “You don’t have to follow every guideline, but wow, if how you eat can prevent or delay cognitive decline, what a fabulous thing.” It is, indeed. For a scholarly overview of the effects of nutrition on the brain, read the 2015 study on the MIND diet here and another, 2010 study on the critical importance of “brain foods” here.

Related Content: 

How to Live to Be 100 and Beyond: 9 Diet & Lifestyle Tips

Nutritional Psychiatry: Why Diet May Play an Essential Role in Treating Mental Health Conditions, Including Depression, Anxiety & Beyond

This Is Your Brain on Exercise: Why Physical Exercise (Not Mental Games) Might Be the Best Way to Keep Your Mind Sharp

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

How Vaccines Improved Our World In One Graphic

In 1796, the British doctor Edward Jenner developed the first vaccine to fight a contagious disease–in this particular case, the smallpox virus. Since then vaccines have helped eradicate, or firmly control, a long list of diseases–everything from diphtheria and the measles, to rubella and polio. Designed by Leon Farrant in 2011, the infographic above reminds us of the miracles brought by vaccines, showing the degree to which they’ve tamed 14 crippling diseases. Before too long, we hope COVID-19 will be added to the list.

For the data used to make the graphic, visit this document online.

via @NeilGaiman

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. 

Related Content:

Roald Dahl, Who Lost His Daughter to Measles, Writes a Heartbreaking Letter about Vaccinations: “It Really Is Almost a Crime to Allow Your Child to Go Unimmunised”

How Do Vaccines (Including the COVID-19 Vaccines) Work?: Watch Animated Introductions

19th Century Maps Visualize Measles in America Before the Miracle of Vaccines

How Fast Can a Vaccine Be Made?: An Animated Introduction

YInMn Blue, the First Shade of Blue Discovered in 200 Years, Is Now Available for Artists

Photo via Oregon State University

“Color is part of a spectrum, so you can’t discover a color,” says Professor Mas Subramanian, a solid-state chemist at Oregon State University. “You can only discover a material that is a particular color”—or, more precisely, a material that reflects light in such a way that we perceive it as a color. Scientific modesty aside, Subramanian actually has been credited with discovering a color—the first inorganic shade of blue in 200 years.

Named “YInMn blue” —and affectionately called “MasBlue” at Oregon State—the pigment’s unwieldy name derives from its chemical makeup of yttrium, indium, and manganese oxides, which together “absorbed red and green wavelengths and reflected blue wavelengths in such a way that it came off looking a very bright blue,” Gabriel Rosenberg notes at NPR. It is a blue, in fact, never before seen, since it is not a naturally occurring pigment, but one literally cooked in a laboratory, and by accident at that.




The discovery, if we can use the word, should justly be credited to Subramanian’s grad student Andrew E. Smith who, during a 2009 attempt to “manufacture new materials that could be used in electronics,” heated the particular mix of chemicals to over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. Smith noticed “it had turned a surprising, bright blue color [and] Subramanian knew immediately it was a big deal.” Why? Because the color blue is a big deal.

In an important sense, color is something humans discovered over long periods of time in which we learned to see the world in shades and hues our ancestors could not perceive. “Some scientists believe that the earliest humans were actually colorblind,” Emma Taggart writes at My Modern Met, “and could only recognize black, white, red, and only later yellow and green.” Blue, that is to say, didn’t exist for early humans. “With no concept of the color blue,” Taggart writes, “they simply had no words to describe it. This is even reflected in ancient literature, such as Homer’s Odyssey,” with its “wine-dark sea.”

Photo via Oregon State University

Sea and sky only begin to assume their current colors some 6,000 years ago when ancient Egyptians began to produce blue pigment. The first known color to be synthetically produced is thus called Egyptian blue, created using “ground limestone mixed with sand and a copper-containing mineral, such as azurite or malachite.” Blue holds a special place in our color lexicography. It is the last color word that develops across cultures and one of the most difficult colors to manufacture. “People have been looking for a good, durable blue color for a couple of centuries,” Subramanian told NPR.

And so, YInMn blue has become a sensation among industrial manufacturers and artists. Patented in 2012 by OSU, it received approval for industrial use in 2017. That same year, Australian paint supplier Derivan released it as an acrylic paint called “Oregon Blue.” It has taken a few more years for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to come around, but they’ve finally approved YlnMn blue for commercial use, “making it available to all,” Isis Davis-Marks writes at Smithsonian. “Now the authenticated pigment is available for sale in paint retailers like Golden in the US.”

Photo via Oregon State University

The new blue solves a number of problems with other blue pigments. It is nontoxic and not prone to fading, since it “reflects heat and absorbs UV radiation.” YInMn blue is “extremely stable, a property long sought in a blue pigment,” says Subramanian. It also fills “a gap in the range of colors,” says art supply manufacturer Georg Kremer, adding, “The pureness of YInBlue is really perfect.”

Since their first, accidental color discovery, “Subramanian and his team have expanded their research and have made a range of new pigments to include almost every color, from bright oranges to shades of purple, turquoise and green,” notes the Oregon State University Department of Chemistry. None have yet had the impact of the new blue. Learn much more about the unique chemical properties of YInMn blue here and see Professor Subramanian discuss its discovery in his TED talk further up.

via Hyperallergic

Related Content: 

Behold One of the Earliest Known Color Charts: The Table of Physiological Colors (1686)

A 900-Page Pre-Pantone Guide to Color from 1692: A Complete Digital Scan

Werner’s Nomenclature of Colour, the 19th-Century “Color Dictionary” Used by Charles Darwin (1814)

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

How Richard Feynman’s Diagrams Revolutionized Physics

If you want to understand theoretical physics these days—as much as is possible without years of specialized study—there are no shortage of places to turn on the internet. Of course, this was not the case in the early 1960s when Richard Feynman gave his famous series of lectures at Caltech. In published form, these lectures became the most popular book on physics ever written. Feynman’s subsequent autobiographical essays and accessible public appearances further solidified his reputation as the foremost popular communicator of physics, “a fun-loving, charismatic practical joker,” writes Mette Ilene Holmnis at Quanta magazine, even if “his performative sexism looks very different to modern eyes.”

Feynman’s genius went beyond that of “ordinary geniuses,” his mentor, Hans Bethe, director of the Manhattan Project, exclaimed: “Feynman was a magician.” That may be so, but he was never above revealing how he learned his tricks, such that anyone could use his methods, whether or not they could achieve his spectacular results. Feynman didn’t only teach his students, and his millions of readers, about physics; he also taught them how to teach themselves. The so-called “Feynman technique” for effective studying ensures that students don’t just parrot knowledge, but that they can “identify any gaps” in their understanding, he emphasized, and bolster weak points where they “can’t explain an idea simply.”




Years before he became the foremost public communicator of science, Feynman performed the same service for his colleagues. “With physicists in the late 1940s struggling to reformulate a relativistic quantum theory describing the interactions of electrically charged particles,” Holmnis writes, “Feynman conjured up some Nobel Prize-winning magic. He introduced a visual method to simplify the seemingly impossible calculations needed to describe basic particle interactions.” The video above, animated by Holmnis, shows just how simple it was—just a few lines, squiggles, circles, and arrows.

Holmnis quotes Feynman biographer James Gleick’s description: Feynman “took the half-made conceptions of waves and particles in the 1940s and shaped them into tools that ordinary physicists could use and understand.” Feynman Diagrams helped make sense of quantum electrodynamics, a theory that “attempted to calculate the probability of all possible outcomes of particle interactions,” the video explains. Among the theory’s problems was the writing of “equations meant keeping track of all interactions, including virtual ones, a grueling, hopeless exercise for even the most organized and patient physicist.”

Using his touch for the relatable, Feynman drew his first diagrams in 1948. They remain, wrote Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek, “a treasured asset in physics because they often provide good approximations to reality. They help us bring our powers of visual imagination to bear on worlds we can’t actually see.” Learn more about Feynman Diagrams in the video above and at Holmnis’ article in Quanta here.

Related Content:

The “Feynman Technique” for Studying Effectively: An Animated Primer

The Feynman Lectures on Physics, The Most Popular Physics Book Ever Written, Is Now Completely Online

What Made Richard Feynman One of the Most Admired Educators in the World

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

“The Most Intelligent Photo Ever Taken”: The 1927 Solvay Council Conference, Featuring Einstein, Bohr, Curie, Heisenberg, Schrödinger & More

A curious thing happened at the end of the 19th century and the dawning of the 20th. As European and American industries became increasingly confident in their methods of invention and production, scientists made discovery after discovery that shook their understanding of the physical world to the core. “Researchers in the 19th century had thought they would soon describe all known physical processes using the equations of Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell,” Adam Mann writes at Wired. But “the new and unexpected observations were destroying this rosy outlook.”

These observations included X-rays, the photoelectric effect, nuclear radiation and electrons; “leading physicists, such as Max Planck and Walter Nernst believed circumstances were dire enough to warrant an international symposium that could attempt to resolve the situation.” Those scientists could not have known that over a century later, we would still be staring at what physicist Dominic Walliman calls the “Chasm of Ignorance” at the edge of quantum theory. But they did initiate “the quantum revolution” in the first Solvay Council, in Brussels, named for wealthy chemist and organizer Ernest Solvay.




“Reverberations from this meeting are still felt to this day… though physics may still sometimes seem to be in crisis” writes Mann (in a 2011 article just months before the discovery of the Higgs boson). The inaugural meeting kicked off a series of conferences on physics and chemistry that have continued into the 21st century. Included in the proceedings were Planck, “often called the father of quantum mechanics,” Ernest Rutherford, who discovered the proton, and Heike Kamerlingh-Onnes, who discovered superconductivity.

Also present were mathematician Henri Poincaré, chemist Marie Curie, and a 32-year-old Albert Einstein, the second youngest member of the group. Einstein described the first Solvay conference (1911) in a letter to a friend as “the lamentations on the ruins of Jerusalem. Nothing positive came out of it.” The ruined “temple,” in this case, were the theories of classical physics, “which had dominated scientific thinking in the previous century.” Einstein understood the dismay, but found his colleagues to be irrationally stubborn and conservative.

Nonetheless, he wrote, the scientists gathered at the Solvay Council “probably all agree that the so-called quantum theory is, indeed, a helpful tool but that it is not a theory in the usual sense of the word, at any rate not a theory that could be developed in a coherent form at the present time.” During the Fifth Solvay Council, in 1927, Einstein tried to prove that the “Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (and hence quantum mechanics itself) was just plain wrong,” writes Jonathan Dowling, co-director of the Horace Hearne Institute for Theoretical Physics.

Physicist Niels Bohr responded vigorously. “This debate went on for days,” Dowling writes, “and continued on 3 years later at the next conference.” At one point, Einstein uttered his famous quote, “God does not play dice,” in a “room full of the world’s most notable scientific minds,” Amanda Macias writes at Business Insider. Bohr responded, “stop telling God what to do.” That room full of luminaries also sat for a portrait, as they had during the first Solvay Council meeting. See the assembled group at the top and further up in a colorized version in what may be, as one Redditor calls it, “the most intelligent picture ever taken.”

The full list of participants is below:

Front row: Irving Langmuir, Max Planck, Marie Curie, Hendrik Lorentz, Albert Einstein, Paul Langevin, Charles-Eugène Guye, C.T.R Wilson, Owen Richardson.

Middle row: Peter Debye, Martin Knudsen, William Lawrence Bragg, Hendrik Anthony Kramers, Paul Dirac, Arthur Compton, Louis de Broglie, Max Born, Niels Bohr.

Back row: Auguste Piccard, Émile Henriot, Paul Ehrenfest, Édouard Herzen, Théophile de Donder, Erwin Schrödinger, JE Verschaffelt, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, Ralph Fowler, Léon Brillouin.

Related Content: 

Quantum Physics Made Relatively Simple: A Mini Course from Nobel Prize-Winning Physicist Hans Bethe

The Map of Physics: Animation Shows How All the Different Fields in Physics Fit Together

Hear Albert Einstein Read “The Common Language of Science” (1941)

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

The CIA Has Declassified 2,780 Pages of UFO-Related Documents, and They’re Now Free to Download

Everybody knows that UFO stands for “unidentified flying object.” Coined by the United States Air Force in 1953, the term has come to stand for a wide range of phenomena that suggest we’ve been contacted by alien civilizations — and in fact has even spawned the field of ufology, dedicated to the investigation of such phenomena. But times change, and with them the approved terminology. These days the U.S. government seems to prefer the abbreviation UAP, which stands for “unidentified aerial phenomenon.” Those three words may sound more precisely descriptive, but they also provide some distance from the decades of not entirely desirable cultural associations built up around the concept of the UFO.

Yet this is hardly a bad time to be a ufologist. “Buried in the latest federal omnibus spending bill signed into law on December 27, 2020 — notable for its inclusion of coronavirus relief — is a mandate that may bring UFO watchers one step closer to finding out whether the government has been watching the skies,” writes Mental Floss’ Jake Rossen.




That same site’s Ellen Gutoskey followed up with an announcement that the CIA’s entire collection of declassified UFO documents is now available to download. You can do so at The Black Vault, a clearing house for UFO related-information run by ufologist John Greenewald Jr. These documents come to 2,780 pages in total, the release of which necessitated the filing of more than 10,000 Freedom of Information Act reports.

Samir Ferdowsi at Vice’s Motherboard quotes Greenewald describing the process as “like pulling teeth,” with results more impressive in quantity than quality. “The CIA has made it INCREDIBLY difficult to use their records in a reasonable manner,” Greenewals writes. “They offer a format that is very outdated (multi page .tif) and offer text file outputs, largely unusable,” all of which “makes it very difficult for people to see the documents, and use them, for any research purpose.” He’s thus also made available a version of the CIA’s declassified UFO documents converted into 713 PDFs. The Black Vault advises downloaders to bear in mind that “many of these documents are poorly photocopied, so the computer can only ‘see’ so much to convert for searching.”

But even with these difficulties, UFO enthusiasts have already turned up material of interest: “From a dispute with a Bosnian fugitive with alleged E.T. contact to mysterious midnight explosions in a small Russian town, the reports definitely take readers for a wild ride,” writes Ferdowsi. “One of the most interesting documents in the drop, Greenewald said, involved the Assistant Deputy Director for Science & Technology being hand-delivered some piece of information on a UFO in the 1970s.” This document, like most of the others, comes with many parts blacked out, but as Greenewald recently tweeted, “I have an open ‘Mandatory Declassification Review’ request to HOPEFULLY get some of these redactions lifted, so we can see what was hand delivered, and what his advice may be.” Ufology demands a great deal of curiosity, but an even greater deal of patience. Enter the Black Vault here.

Related Content:

The CIA Puts Hundreds of Declassified Documents About UFO Sightings Online, Plus 10 Tips for Investigating Flying Saucers

12 Million Declassified CIA Documents Now Free Online: Secret Tunnels, UFOs, Psychic Experiments & More

What Do Aliens Look Like? Oxford Astrobiologists Draw a Picture, Based on Darwinian Theories of Evolution

The Appeal of UFO Narratives: Investigative Journalist Paul Beban Visits Pretty Much Pop #14

Richard Feynman: The Likelihood of Flying Saucers

Carl Jung’s Fascinating 1957 Letter on UFOs

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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.

More in this category... »
Quantcast
Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.