A New Album of Goth-Folk Songs Inspired by the Life of Marie Curie

After several years of writing and performing songs influenced by such sources as authors Edward Gorey and Raymond Chandler, filmmaker Tim Burton, and murder ballads in the American folk tradition, Ellia Bisker and Jeffrey Morris, known collectively as Charming Disaster, began casting around for a single, existing narrative that could sustain an album’s worth of original tunes.

An encounter with Lauren Redniss’s graphic novel Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout spurred them to look more deeply at the Nobel Prize-winning scientist and her pioneering discoveries.

The result is Our Lady of Radium, a nine song exploration of Curie’s life and work.

The crowdfunded album, recorded during the pandemic, is so exhaustively researched that the accompanying illustrated booklet includes a bibliography with titles ranging from David I. Harvie’s technically dense Deadly Sunshine: The History and Fatal Legacy of Radium to Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook, described by The New York Observer as “a vicious, page-turning story that reads more like Raymond Chandler than Madame Curie.”

A chapter in the The Poisoner’s Handbook introduced Bisker and Morris to the Radium Girls, young workers whose prolonged exposure to radium-based paint in early 20th-century clock factories had horrific consequences.

In La Porte v. United States Radium Corporation (1935) prosecutors detailed the conditions under which the luminous dials of inexpensive watch faces were produced:

Each girl procured a tray containing twenty-four watch dials and the material to be used to paint the numerals upon them so that they would appear luminous. The material was a powder, of about the consistency of cosmetic powder, and consisted of phosphorescent zinc sulphide mixed with radium sulphate…The powder was poured from the vial into a small porcelain crucible, about the size of a thimble. A quantity of gum arabic, as an adhesive, and a thinner of water were then added, and this was stirred with a small glass rod until a paintlike substance resulted. In the course of a working week each girl painted the dials contained on twenty-two to forty-four such trays, depending upon the speed with which she worked, and used a vial of powder for each tray. When the paint-like substance was produced a girl would employ it in painting the figures on a watch dial. There were fourteen numerals, the figure six being omitted. In the painting each girl used a very fine brush of camel’s hair containing about thirty hairs. In order to obtain the fine lines which the work required, a girl would place the bristles in her mouth, and by the action of her tongue and lips bring the bristles to a fine point. The brush was then dipped into the paint, the figures painted upon the dial until more paint was required or until the paint on the brush dried and hardened, when the brush was dipped into a small crucible of water. This water remained in the crucible without change for a day or perhaps two days. The brush would then be repointed in the mouth and dipped into the paint or even repointed in such manner after being dipped into the paint itself, in a continuous process.

The band found themselves haunted by the Radium Girls’ story:

Partly it’s that it seemed like a really good job — it was clean work, it was less physically taxing and paid better than factory or mill jobs, the working environment was nice — and the workers were all young women. They were excited about this sweet gig, and then it betrayed them, poisoning them and cutting their lives short in a horrible way. 

There were all these details we learned that we couldn’t stop thinking about. Like the fact that radium gets taken up by bone, which then starts to disintegrate because radium isn’t as hard as calcium. The Radium Girls’ jaw bones were crumbling away, because they (were instructed) to use their lips to point the brushes when painting watch faces with radium-based paint. 

The radium they absorbed was irradiating them from inside, from within their own bones. 

Radium decays into radon, and it was eventually discovered that the radium girls were exhaling radon gas. They could expose a photographic plate by breathing on it. Those images—the bones and the breath—stuck with us in particular.

Fellow musician, Omer Gal, of the “theatrical freak folk musical menagerie” Cookie Tongue, heightens the sense of dread in his chilling stop-motion animation for Our Lady of Radium’s first music video, above. There’s no question that a tragic fate awaits the crumbling, uncomprehending little worker.

Before their physical symptoms started to manifest, the Radium Girls believed what they had been told — that the radium-based paint they used on the timepieces’ faces and hands posed no threat to their well being.

Compounding the problem, the paint’s glow-in-the-dark properties proved irresistible to high-spirited teens, as the niece of Margaret “Peg” Looney — 17 when she started work at the Illinois Radium Dial Company (now a Superfund Site) — recounted to NPR:

I can remember my family talking about my aunt bringing home the little vials (of radium paint.) They would go into their bedroom with the lights off and paint their fingernails, their eyelids, their lips and then they’d laugh at each other because they glowed in the dark.

Looney died at 24, having suffered from anemia, debilitating hip pain, and the loss of teeth and bits of her jaw. Although her family harbored suspicions as to the cause of her bewildering decline, no attorney would take their case. They later learned that the Illinois Radium Dial Company had arranged for medical tests to be performed on workers, without truthfully advising them of the results.

Eventually, the mounting death toll made the connection between workers’ health and the workplace impossible to ignore. Lawsuits such as La Porte v. United States Radium Corporation led to improved industrial safety regulations and other labor reforms.

Too late, Charming Disaster notes, for the Radium Girls themselves:

(Our song) Radium Girls is dedicated to the young women who were unwittingly poisoned by their work and who were ignored and maligned in seeking justice. Their plight led to laws and safeguards that eventually became the occupational safety protections we have today. Of course that is still a battle that’s being fought, but it started with them. We wanted to pay tribute to these young women, honor their memory, and give them a voice.  

Preorder Charming Disaster’s Our Lady of Radium here.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How to Decode NASA’s Message to Aliens

When NASA spent close to a billion dollars on the Voyager program, launching a pair of probes from Cape Canaveral in 1977, its primary purpose was not to find intelligent extra-terrestrial life. The program grew out of ambitions for a “Grand Tour”: four robotic probes that would visit all the planets in the outer solar system, taking advantage of a 175-year alignment of Jupiter and Saturn. A downsized version produced Voyager 1 and 2, each craft “a miniature marvel,” writes the Attic. “Weighing less than a Volkswagen, each had 65,000 parts. Six thrusters powered by plutonium. Three gyroscopes. Assorted instruments to measure gravity, radiation, magnetic fields, and more. Design and assembly took years.”

Since reaching Jupiter in 1979, the two probes have sent back astonishing images from the great gas giants and the very edges of the solar system. “By 2030, Voyager 1 and 2 will cease communications for good,” says Cory Zapatka in the Verge Science video above, “and while they won’t be able to beam information back to Earth, they’re going to continue sailing through space at almost 60,000 kilometers per hour,” reaching interstellar unknowns their makers will never see. Voyager 1 was only supposed to last 10 years. In 2012, it left the solar system, to drift, along with its twin, “endlessly among the stars of our galaxy,” Timothy Ferris writes in The New Yorker, “unless someone or something encounters them someday.”


As deep space detritus, the probes will make excellent carriers for an interstellar message in a bottle, the Voyager team reasoned. The idea prompted the creation of the Golden Record, an LP fitted to each probe containing a message from humanity to the cosmos. “Etched in copper, plated with gold, and sealed in aluminum cases, the records are expected to remain intelligible for more than a billion years, making them the longest-lasting objects ever crafted by human hands.” Produced by Ferris and overseen by Carl Sagan and a team including his future wife, Ann Druyan, the Golden Record includes the work of Mozart, Chuck Berry, folk music from around the world, the sounds of waves and whales, and one of the most universal of human sounds, laughter (likely that of Sagan himself).

The Golden Record also includes 115 images, etched into its very surface. No, they are not digital files. “There are no jpegs or tifs included on it,” says Zapatka. After all, “The Voyager’s computer systems were only 69 kilobytes large, barely enough for one image, let alone 115.” These are analog still photographs and diagrams that must be reconstructed with mathematical formulae extracted from electronic tones. The process starts with the diagrams on the record’s cover — simple icons that contain an incredible density of information. We begin with two circles joined by a line. They are hydrogen atoms, the most plentiful gas in the universe, undergoing a change that occurs spontaneously once every 10 million years.

During this rare occurrence, the hydrogen atoms emit energy at wavelengths of 21 centimeters. This measurement is used as “a constant for all the other symbols on the record.” That’s an awful lot of background knowledge required to decipher what look to the scientifically untrained eye like a pair of tiny eyes behind a pair of odd eyeglasses. But for spacefaring aliens, “how hard could that be?” says Bill Nye above in an abridged description of how to decode the Golden Record. We may never, in a billion years, know if any extra-terrestrial species ever finds the record and makes the attempt. But the Golden Record has become as much an object of fascination for humans as it is a greeting from Earth to the galaxy. Learn more from NASA here about the images encoded on the Golden Record and order your own reproduction (on LP or CD) here.

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

How to Ride a Pterosaur, According to Science

From the BBC: “During the Late Cretaceous, winged prehistoric creatures called pterosaurs dominated the air. They were the first vertebrates to master flight. They were not dinosaurs but closely related. Some were tiny, but some were the biggest creatures ever to have flown. We ask a question you’ve all been wondering, could we ride one, and if so, how?” In the animation above, science producer Pierangelo Pirak explores some ideas Dr. Liz Martin-Silverstone, a palaeontologist with a keen interest in biomechanics. She runs the Palaeobiology Laboratories, including the XTM Imaging Facility for microCT scanning and imaging analysis, at the University of Bristol.

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. You can contribute through PayPal, Patreon, Venmo (@openculture) and Crypto. Thanks!

via TheKidsShouldSeeThis

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Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten Updated to Reflect Our Modern Understanding of the Universe

We’ve experienced some mindblowing technological advances in the years following designers Charles and Ray Eames’ 1977 film Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero.

Cryptocurrency

Segways

E-cigarettes

And y’know, all sorts of innovative strides in the fields of medicinecommunications, and environmental sustainability.

In the above video for the BBC, particle physicist Brian Cox pays tribute to the Eames’ celebrated eight-and-a-half-minute documentary short, and uses the discoveries of the last four-and-a-half decades to kick the can a bit further down the road.


The original film helped ordinary viewers get a handle on the universe’s outer edges by telescoping up and out from a one-meter view of a picnic blanket in a Chicago park at the rate of one power of ten every 10 seconds.

Start with something everybody can understand, right?

At 100 (102) meters — slightly less than the total length of an American football field, the picnickers become part of the urban landscape, sharing their space with cars, boats at anchor in Lake Michigan, and a shocking dearth of fellow picnickers.

One more power of 10 and the picknickers disappear from view, eclipsed by Soldier Field, the Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum and other longstanding downtown Chicago institutions.

At 1024 meters — 100 million light years away from the starting picnic blanket, the Eames butted up against the limits of the observable universe, at least as far as 1977 was concerned.

They reversed direction, hurtling back down to earth by one power of ten every two seconds. Without pausing for so much as handful of fruit or a slice of pie, they dove beneath the skin of a dozing picnicker’s hand, continuing their journey on a cellular, then sub-atomic level, ending inside a proton of a carbon atom within a DNA molecule in a white blood cell.

It still manages to put the mind in a whirl.

Sit tight, though, because, as Professor Cox points out, “Over 40 years later, we can show a bit more.”

2021 relocates the picnic blanket to a picturesque beach in Sicily, and forgoes the trip inside the human body in favor of Deep Space, though the method of travel remains the same — exponential, by powers of ten.

1013 meters finds us heading into interstellar space, on the heels of Voyagers 1 and 2, the twin spacecrafts launched the same year as the Eames’ Powers of Ten — 1977.

Having achieved their initial objective, the exploration of Jupiter and Saturn, these spacecrafts’ mission was expanded to Uranus, Neptune, and now, the outermost edge of the Sun’s domain. The data they, and other exploratory crafts, have sent back allow Cox and others in the  scientific community to take us beyond the Eames’ outermost limits:

At 1026 meters, we switch our view to microwave. We can now see the current limit of our vision. This light forms a wall all around us. The light and dark patches show differences in temperature by fractions of a degree, revealing where matter was beginning to clump together to form the first galaxies shortly after the Big Bang. This light is known as the cosmic microwave background radiation. 

1027 meters…1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. Beyond this point, the nature of the Universe is truly uncharted and debated. This light was emitted around 380,000 years after the Big Bang. Before this time, the Universe was so hot that it was not transparent to light. Is there simply more universe out there, yet to be revealed? Or is this region still expanding, generating more universe, or even other universes with different physical properties to our own? How will our understanding of the Universe have changed by 2077? How many more powers of ten are out there?

According to NASA, the Voyager crafts have sufficient power and fuel to keep their “current suite of science instruments on” for another four years, at least. By then, Voyager 1 will be about 13.8 billion miles, and Voyager 2 some 11.4 billion miles from the Sun:

In about 40,000 years, Voyager 1 will drift within 1.6 light-years (9.3 trillion miles) of AC+79 3888, a star in the constellation of Camelopardalis which is heading toward the constellation Ophiuchus. In about 40,000 years, Voyager 2 will pass 1.7 light-years (9.7 trillion miles) from the star Ross 248 and in about 296,000 years, it will pass 4.3 light-years (25 trillion miles) from Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. The Voyagers are destined—perhaps eternally—to wander the Milky Way.

If this dizzying information makes you yearn for 1987’s simple pleasures, this Wayback Machine link includes a fun interactive for the original Powers of Ten. Click the “show text” option on an exponential slider tool to consider the scale of each stop in historic and tangible context.

via Aeon

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Catherine the Great of Russia Sends a Letter Urging Her Fellow Russians to Get Inoculated Against Smallpox (1787)

I got my booster shot the other week and through the miracles of modern science I barely knew a needle was in me before the pharmacist told me it was over. (I also didn’t feel any after effects, but your mileage may vary.) I mention this because before needles, before injectable vaccines, there was something called variolation.

Since ancient times, smallpox had a habit of decimating populations, disappearing, and reappearing elsewhere for another outbreak. It killed rulers and peasants alike. Symptoms included fever, vomiting, and most abhorrent, a body covered with fluid-filled blisters. It could blind you, and it could kill you. In variolation, a physician would take the infectious fluid from from a blister or scab on an infected person and rub it into scratches or cuts on a healthy patient’s skin. This would lead to a mild—but still particularly unpleasant—case of smallpox, and inoculate them against the virus.

But one can also see how the practice of variolation—introducing a diluted version of the virus in order for the immune system to do its work—points towards the science of vaccines.


One supporter of variolation was Catherine the Great, as evidenced by a letter in her hand promoting it across Russia from 1787. The letter just sold for $1.3 million, alongside a portrait of the monarch by Dmitry Levitsky.

Addressed to a governor-general, Catherine the Great instructs him to make variolation available to everybody in his province.

“Among the other duties of the Welfare Boards in the Provinces entrusted to you,” she writes, “one of the most important should be the introduction of inoculation against smallpox, which, as we know, causes great harm, especially among the ordinary people.” She further orders inoculation centers be set up in convents and monasteries, funded by town revenues to pay doctors.

Catherine had a personal stake in all this. Her husband, Peter III caught the disease before he became emperor, and was left disfigured and scarred for life. When she got a chance to inoculate herself in 1768 she took it, calling in a Scottish doctor, Dr. Thomas Dimsdale, to perform the variolation. The procedure took place in secret, with a horse at the ready in case the procedure caused terrible side effects and he had to hot foot it out of Russia. That didn’t happen, and after a brief convalescence, Catherine revealed what she had done to her countrymen.

“My objective was, through my example, to save from death the multitude of my subjects who, not knowing the value of this technique, and frightened of it, were left in danger.”

Yet, despite her own bravery, 20 years later smallpox continued to rampage through Russia, hence the letter.

Nine years later in 1796, Dr. Edward Jenner found that the cowpox virus—which only caused mild, cold-like symptoms in humans—could inoculate humans against smallpox. Despite initial rejections from the scientific community, his discovery led to vaccination supplanting variolation. And it’s the reason we now use the word “vaccine”—it comes from the Latin word for cow.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

Archaeologists Discover 200,000-Year-Old Hand & Footprints That Could Be the World’s Earliest Cave Art

Wet cement triggers a primal impulse, particularly in children.

It’s so tempting to inscribe a pristine patch of sidewalk with a lasting impression of one’s existence.

Is the coast clear? Yes? Quick, grab a stick and write your name!

No stick?

Sink a hand or foot in, like a movie star…

…or, even more thrillingly, a child hominin on the High Tibetan Plateau, 169,000 to 226,000 years ago!

Perhaps one day your surface-marring gesture will be conceived of as a great gift to science, and possibly art. (Try this line of reasoning with the angry homeowner or shopkeeper who’s intent on measuring your hand against the one now permanently set into their new cement walkway.)


Tell them how in 2018, professional ichnologists doing fieldwork in Quesang Hot Spring, some 80 km northwest of Lhasa, were over the moon to find five handprints and five footprints dating to the Middle Pleistocene near the base of a rocky promontory.

Researchers led by David Zhang of Guangzhou University attribute the handprints to a 12-year-old, and the footprints to a 7-year-old.

In a recent article in Science Bulletin, Zhang and his team conclude that the children’s handiwork is not only deliberate (as opposed to “imprinted during normal locomotion or by the use of hands to stabilize motion”) but also “an early act of parietal art.”

The Uranium dating of the travertine which received the kids’ hands and feet while still soft is grounds for excitement, moving the dial on the earliest known occupation (or visitation) of the Tibetan Plateau much further back than previously believed — from 90,000-120,000 years ago to 169,000-226,000 years ago.

That’s a lot of food for thought, evolutionarily speaking. As Zhang told TIME magazine, “you’re simultaneously dealing with a harsh environment, less oxygen, and at the same time, creating this.”

Zhang is steadfast that “this” is the world’s oldest parietal art — outpacing a Neanderthal artist’s red-pigmented hand stencil in Spain’s Cave of Maltravieso by more than 100,000 years.

Other scientists are not so sure.

Anthropologist Paul Taçon, director of Griffith University’s Place, Evolution and Rock Art Heritage Unit, thinks it’s too big of “a stretch” to describe the impressions as art, suggesting that they could be chalked up to a range of activities.

Nick Barton, Professor of Paleolithic Archeology at Oxford wonders if the traces, intentionally placed though they may be, are less art than child’s play. (Team Wet Cement!)

Zhang counters that such arguments are predicated on modern notions of what constitutes art, driving his point home with an appropriately stone-aged metaphor:

When you use stone tools to dig something in the present day, we cannot say that that is technology. But if ancient people use that, that’s technology.

Cornell University’s Thomas Urban, who co-authored the Science Bulletin article with Zhang and a host of other researchers shares his colleagues aversion’ to definitions shaped by a modern lens:

Different camps have specific definitions of art that prioritize various criteria, but I would like to transcend that and say there can be limitations imposed by these strict categories that might inhibit us from thinking more broadly about creative behavior. I think we can make a solid case that this is not utilitarian behavior. There’s something playful, creative, possibly symbolic about this. This gets at a very fundamental question of what it actually means to be human.

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Ayun Halliday is the Chief Primaologist of the East Village Inky zine and author, most recently, of Creative, Not Famous: The Small Potato Manifesto.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

How the World’s First Anti-Vax Movement Started with the First Vaccine for Smallpox in 1796, and Spread Fears of People Getting Turned into Half-Cow Babies

A cartoon from a December 1894 anti-vaccination publication (Courtesy of The Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of Philadelphia)

For well over a century people have queued up to get vaccinated against polio, smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella, the flu or other epidemic diseases. And they have done so because they were mandated by schools, workplaces, armed forces, and other institutions committed to using science to fight disease. As a result, deadly viral epidemics began to disappear in the developed world. Indeed, the vast majority of people now protesting mandatory vaccinations were themselves vaccinated (by mandate) against polio, smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella, etc., and hardly any of them have contracted those once-common diseases. The historical argument for vaccines may not be the most scientific (the science is readily available online). But history can act as a reliable guide for understanding patterns of human behavior.

In 1796, Scottish physician Edward Jenner discovered how an injection of cowpox-infected human biological material could make humans immune to smallpox. For the next 100 years after this breakthrough, resistance to inoculation grew into “an enormous mass movement,” says Yale historian of medicine Frank Snowden. “There was a rejection of vaccination on political grounds that it was widely considered as another form of tyranny.”


Fears that injections of cowpox would turn people into mutants with cow-like growths were satirized as early as 1802 by cartoonist James Gilray (below). While the anti-vaccination movement may seem relatively new, the resistance, refusal, and denialism are as old as vaccinations to infectious disease in the West.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

“In the early 19th century, British people finally had access to the first vaccine in history, one that promised to protect them from smallpox, among the deadliest diseases in the era,” writes Jess McHugh at The Washington Post. Smallpox killed around 4,000 people a year in the UK and left hundreds more disfigured or blinded. Nonetheless, “many Britons were skeptical of the vaccine…. The side effects they dreaded were far more terrifying: blindness, deafness, ulcers, a gruesome skin condition called ‘cowpox mange’ — even sprouting hoofs and horns.” Giving a person one disease to frighten off another one probably seemed just as absurd a notion as turning into a human/cow hybrid.

Jenner’s method, called variolation, was outlawed in 1840 as safer vaccinations replaced it. By 1867, all British children up to age 14 were required by law to be vaccinated against smallpox. Widespread outrage resulted, even among prominent physicians and scientists, and continued for decades. “Every day the vaccination laws remain in force,” wrote scientist Alfred Russel Wallace in 1898, “parents are being punished, infants are being killed.” In fact, it was smallpox claiming lives, “more than 400,000 lives per year throughout the 19th century, according to the World Health Organization,” writes Elizabeth Earl at The Atlantic“Epidemic disease was a fact of life at the time.” And so it is again. Covid has killed almost 800,000 people in the U.S. alone over the past two years.

 

Then as now, medical quackery played its part in vaccine refusal — in this case a much larger part. “Never was the lie of ‘the good old days’ more clear than in medicine,” Greig Watson writes at BBC News. “The 1841 UK census suggested a third of doctors were unqualified.” Common causes of illness in an 1848 medical textbook included “wet feet,” “passionate fear or rage,” and “diseased parents.” Among the many fiery lectures, caricatures, and pamphlets issued by opponents of vaccination, one 1805 tract by William Rowley, a member of the Royal College of Physicians, alleged that the injection of cowpox could mar an entire bloodline. “Who would marry into any family, at the risk of their offspring having filthy beastly diseases?” it asked hysterically.

Then, as now, religion was a motivating factor. “One can see it in biblical terms as human beings created in the image of God,” says Snowden. “The vaccination movement injecting into human bodies this material from an inferior animal was seen as irreligious, blasphemous and medically wrong.” Granted, those who volunteered to get vaccinated had to place their faith in the institutions of science and government. After medical scandals of the recent past like the Tuskegee experiments or Thalidomide, that can be a big ask. In the 19th century, says medical historian Kristin Hussey, “people were asking questions about rights, especially working-class rights. There was a sense the upper class were trying to take advantage, a feeling of distrust.”

The deep distrust of institutions now seems intractable and fully endemic in our current political climate, and much of it may be fully warranted. But no virus has evolved — since the time of the Jenner’s first smallpox inoculation — to care about our politics, religious beliefs, or feelings about authority or individual rights. Without widespread vaccination, viruses are more than happy to exploit our lack of immunity, and they do so without pity or compunction.

via Washington Post

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

A Fascinating 3D Animation Shows the Depths of the Ocean

Deep sea exploration and the science of oceanography began 150 years ago when British survey ship HMS Challenger set off from Portsmouth with 181 miles of rope. The Royal Society tasked the expedition, among other things, with “investigat[ing] the physical conditions of the deep sea… in regard to depth, temperature circulation, specific gravity and penetration of light.” It was the first such voyage of its kind.

To accomplish its objectives, Challenger swapped all but two of its guns for specialized equipment, including — as assistant ship’s steward Joseph Matkin described in a letter home — “thousands of small air tight bottles and little boxes about the size of Valentine boxes packed in Iron Tanks for keeping specimens in, insects, butterflies, mosses, plants, etc… a photographic room on the main deck, also a dissecting room for carving up Bears, Whales, etc.”


Findings from the four-year voyage totaled almost thirty-thousand pages when published in a report. But the Challenger’s most famous legacy may be its discovery of the Mariana Trench. The ship recorded a sounding of 4,475 fathoms (26,850 ft.) in a southern part of the trench subsequently called Challenger Deep, and now known as the deepest part of the ocean and the “lowest point on Earth.” The most recent soundings using advanced sonar have measured its depth at somewhere between 35,768 to 36,037 feet, or almost 7 miles (11 kilometers).

Challenger Deep is so deep that if Everest were submerged into its depths, the mountain’s peak would still be roughly a mile and a half underwater. In 1960, a manned crew of two descended into the trench. Dozens of remote operated vehicles (ROVs) have explored its depths since, but it wouldn’t be until 2012 that another human made the 2.5 hour descent, when Avatar and The Abyss director James Cameron financed his own expedition. Then in 2019, explorer Victor Vescoso made the journey, setting the Guinness world record for deepest manned submarine dive when he reached the Eastern Pool, a depression within Challenger Deep. Just last year, he bested the record with his mission specialist John Rost, exploring the Eastern Pool for over four hours.

Last year’s descent brings the total number of people to visit Challenger Deep to five. How can the rest of us wrap our heads around a point so deep beneath us it can swallow up Mount Everest? The beautifully detailed, 3D animation at the top of the post does a great job of conveying the relative depths of oceans, seas, and major lakes, showing undersea tunnels and shipwrecks along the way, with manmade objects like the Eiffel Tower (which marks, within a few meters, the deepest scuba dive) and Burj Khalifa placed at intervals for scale.

By the time the animation — created by MetaBallStudios’ Alvaro Gracia Montoya– submerges us fully (with booming, echoing musical accompaniment) in the Mariana Trench, we may feel that we have had a little taste of the awe that lies at the deepest ocean depths.

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Climate Change Gets Strikingly Visualized by a Scottish Art Installation

Filmmaker James Cameron Going 36,000 Feet Under the Sea

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

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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.