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How Archivists Deal With Redactions, Spills and Scribbles
December 15th, 2017, 04:45 PM

On March 15, 1898, the eminent botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker sat down at his desk, picked up a pen, and started writing a letter to his friend and confidant, the Reverend James Digues La Touche. "My dear La Touche," he began, before continuing what had been many years of correspondence, updating his pen pal on his family life, his intellectual preoccupations, and his professional exploits.

Over a century later, an archivist at Kew Gardens in London—the largest botanical garden in the world, where Dalton served a long stint as director—reached into a folder of the pair's correspondence, drew out a page, and stopped cold.

The archivists were already deep into the process of digitizing and transcribing Hooker's letters for posterity. But a few lines into this particular letter, the words suddenly disappeared, censored by row after row of black squiggles. The same went for a number of Hooker's missives to La Touche. "We were quite mystified by it," says Virginia Mills, an archivist at Kew. "They stood out to us, because we hadn't come across anything else like it in his papers. So we just started kind of speculating about what it might be."


Kew Gardens has thousands of pages of correspondence from Hooker. Of these, only a small percentage of lines are blacked out. But these pages play an outsized role in the imaginative life of those who work with them. "The letters are full of unpublished material, private thoughts, scientific exchange and criticism, and intimate details shared with friends and family," writes Mills in a blog post about the letters. "But perhaps most intriuging of all, to those of us who have got to know the collection, are the stories that remain obscured."

We picture archives as airtight troves of information, where historical documents go to be explicated, contextualized, and preserved. But there are plenty of ways for mystery to wriggle in. "When I was asking my colleagues in other archives, almost all of them could think of an example" of something that simply could not be read, says Mills, each of which presents different problems and opportunities.

In some cases, obscurity is professionally (or personally) required. Codes, for example, seem to be favored by two very different types of people: businessmen seeking to protect their economic interests, and teenagers and young adults guarding their feelings.


Beatrix Potter, later famous for her children's books, kept a diary written in a self-invented cipher that took a dedicated fan years to crack. Archivist Kathryn Boit, who once worked with the youthful diaries of physician William Clarence Lisle Richards, which she describes as "absolutely delightful, mostly recording his borderline obsessive crushes and hobbies." "He used a code occasionally, which I never understood!" she writes.

The businessmen are equally cryptic. Now an archivist at SOAS university in London, Boit runs into a lot of code in papers from Butterfield & Swire. In 1920, the export business paid thousands of pounds to develop their own five-letter cipher, which, Boit writes, could get across everything from “lagbu” (“Act of God’) to “uzvap” (“Instruct the captain to drive his ship at full speed”). In this particular case, Boit says, decoding is easy, as "we also have the big volumes of the code in the Archive."

Jill Moretto, the heritage archivist for healthcare company GlaxoSmithKline, has a more mysterious code to grapple with. She oversees a series of letterbooks used by some of the company's founders, which have strange, cross-shaped symbols sprinkled throughout.


Because the company shipped pharmaceuticals overseas, she says, she expects the symbols were sent to customers to help them pick up their goods: "to tell [them] which ship the goods were on, and dates of sailing perhaps, encoded so that if it was intercepted the secret was safe." It's also possible they matched symbols painted on the crates themselves. "I've yet to find a key to these," she continues, "so parts of the letters are essentially hidden."

Other forms of illegibility are almost certainly unintentional. Take the Arctic notebooks of 19th-century explorer Charles Francis Hall, which were recently digitized by volunteers (known as "volunpeers") at the Smithsonian Transcription Center, and a portion of which can be viewed below. The problem is quickly apparent. "When Hall is sitting down at his desk, his handwriting is flawless," says Andres Almeida, the Center's project coordinator. "But when he was out exploring, it's something to make you go cross-eyed."


When the eyes finally uncross, though, the rewards are great. Sometimes, a single volunpeer will decide to focus on a particular source, and end up developing a close and fruitful relationship with their subject. "You start hearing the voice of the person sometimes," Almeida says. Such is the case with Hall's journals. They have a dedicated transcriber, who, after spending so much time with the explorer, has developed an eye for his quirks, says Almedia.

Redaction and censorship—like that found in the Hooker/La Touche correspondence—is also not uncommon. As Mills explains, searching for the motivations that inspired it can be another way of getting to know the text. Some of these motivations we would now call prudish: One of Mills's colleagues at the Kew Archives pointed her to the diaries of explorer Richard Spruce, later published, and red-penned, by Alfred Russell Wallace.

"Wallace has crossed out certain passages about Amazonian women and menstruation—things he thought at the time weren't suitable to be published," says Mills. "It gives you an idea of what the sensibilities at the time were."


But other times, the motivations are nearly as mysterious as the hidden words themselves. Lorna Cahill, an archivist at the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons in London, has a trove of letters the veterinarian from Frederick Smith in which almost all the personal details are blacked out—even the greetings. "It is not entirely clear why he has redacted the salutations," she says. "It appears that he only wanted to keep what would be historically interesting, and decided terms of endearment with his wife wouldn’t be!"

Such is the case with Hooker's blacked-out letters. After they found them, "we just kind of started speculating," says Mills, using what they knew of Hooker's life and legacy to undertake a sort of historical detective work. A biographer who had transcribed the letters in 1913 had also omitted the occluded passages, suggesting that the censorship happened before that date.

They also knew that after Hooker's death in 1911, the letters probably passed from La Touche's household back to his own. This gives clues about who did it: "It could have been that they were redacted before, by a member of La Touche's family," says Mills. "Or it could have been that [Hooker's wife] redacted them before she gave them to the researchers who were writing the biography of her husband. We think those are probably the two most likely culprits."


The "how" is obvious—a thick black marker—and so that leaves the "why." This has proven to be the trickiest and most rewarding part of their detective work. As Hooker and La Touche spoke frankly about then-controversial topics like the age of the Earth, and no one blocked that out, political censorship is an unlikely motivator. "We thought that maybe it's not scientific content they're worried about removing—it's more likely to be personal information."

Specifically, they think it might be comments about two of Hooker's children, Reginald and Joseph, who were tutored by La Rouche. "Maybe they're very personal comments about the childrens' performance, their education, their intelligence, that kind of thing," says Mills. "It forces us to kind of think about the family dynamic, and to consider what their personal concerns might have been."

This is another type of closeness, an opportunity to reexamine the life of someone you thought you knew inside and out. But because it just piques further curiosity, both for the archivists and the researchers that use their collections, it's a bittersweet one as well. "The fact that they didn't want it seen almost makes you more interested in what it might say than you would have been otherwise," says Mills. And there it lies, right in front of your nose, but impossible to see.

Capbreton Blockhouses in Capbreton, France
December 15th, 2017, 04:45 PM

An abandoned blockhouse.

The beaches that hug the shore of Capbreton, a small coastal town in southwest France, are known for their prime surfing conditions. Vast and hidden by immense dunes, the stretches of sand make a great weekend getaway. But during World War II, the occupying Nazi forces thought of them as a great place for a potential Allied landing and invasion. They built a series of blockhouses so they’d be ready when their enemy arrived.

But the Allies never launched an invasion near Capbreton, rendering these defensive structures obsolete. Time has gone by and hardly anyone, aside from the occasional graffiti artist or curious explorer, has used them.

Nature has claimed these abandoned concrete constructions. Algae cover their surfaces. The occasional crab scurries about. The entrances to some of them have been almost filled with sand. Others are partially waterlogged, especially when the tides are high.

However, it is possible to climb inside some of the structures. A rank smell welcomes anyone who dares enter. The blockhouses are a few minutes away from the town’s main streets, making it easy for just about anyone to admire these relics of World War II. 

The fortifications are part of the Atlantic Wall, a coastal defense system built by the Germans that stretched from the French Basque country all the way up to Norway. Nazis guarded the coasts of their claimed lands from within these blockhouses, ready for any counterattacks. Now, hundreds of the structures lie along Europe's beaches, slowly eroding and crumbling into the sea.

The Church of Our Lady of Kazan in Yaropolets, Russia
December 15th, 2017, 04:45 PM

The Church of Our Lady of Kazan.

Yaropolets is a small village just over 80 miles from Moscow, but the slow, clacking, arduous train journey from the Russian capital amounts to two and a half hours. Its closest town, Volokolamsk, is around 12 years older than Moscow, and in autumn, bags of excess home-harvested apples scatter the quiet, colourful roads between the two, free for the taking.

Moscow’s brisk crowds dissolve into fresh breezes and a sense that individuals all know one another. At various bus stops along the route, babushkas board and greet neighbours and share cabbage pies.

The Church of Our Lady of Kazan was built in the late 18th century as part of the Chernyshev Estate, and the building itself is unusual in that it’s composed of two symmetric sections: apses on both ends are connected by a broad vestibule. Its design was inspired by early classicism and contemporary late-Baroque and Rococo elements.

Long since abandoned, the plasterwork has fallen off, exposing the red brick underneath, and trees and bushes now sprout from the roof. The all-seeing eye over the entrance has earned it the reputation of being a mysterious Masonic temple, though there’s no evidence to suggest that this was ever the case.

One of the church’s crisscrossed Corinthian-style columns lies sprawled across the floor in the western apse, blocking the path to what’s now an empty shell. Rubble and pieces of ceiling are scattered across the blue and white floor tiles, presumably the result of a World War II shell strike. Buckling wooden beams support the roof in place of the useless weathered cylinders. An uncovered hole in the floor likely marks the descent to the crypt.

Kolossi Castle in Kolossi, Cyprus
December 15th, 2017, 04:45 PM

In 1191, Richard the Lionheart celebrated his conquest of Cyprus by wedding a Spanish princess at Limassol Castle, ordering barrels of wines from the nearby village of Kolossi for the nuptials. The crusading King of England toasted the lavish ceremony with a swig of the sweet nectar and, legend has it, declared the drink “the wine of kings and king of wines.”

Commandaria, as the wine was called, still exists today, making it the world’s oldest manufactured wine in the world. The dessert wine derives its name from “La Grande Commanderie,” the military headquarters of the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitallers, two famed knightly orders that occupied Cyprus for hundreds of years during the Crusades from their base at Kolossi Castle, built in 1210.

It could be expected that a castle home to such romantic stories of chivalric knights and wine fit for kings would exhibit an equally fantastical appearance. But in fact the image of fairytale European castles arose around the 1500s; Kolossi Castle predates these iconic structures by at least two centuries. Castles were originally built for military strategy, but after gunpowder came into prominence wealthy aristocrats built them as symbols of prestige and fantasy, crafting a starry-eyed view of the life of kings and queens from centuries past. In contrast, Kolossi Castle comes from a time of practical defense. It wasn’t built for style; it was built for war.

The stronghold’s tower allowed for an unobstructed view of the countryside and its symmetrical structure provided broader sight-lines for detecting enemy armies. The knightly orders that built it were steadfast in their martial duties, prioritizing military strategy, not architectural beauty. This focus on security and defense was necessary in Cyprus to deter attempted enemy conquests, which it was burdened by for more than a millennium. Its strategic location in the Mediterranean meant that almost every empire sought to control it: the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Ottomans. Visiting Kolossi Castle today is about more than gazing at architectural beauty; it’s about standing in the footsteps of centuries of history. 

Found: An Eighth Planet Orbiting a Far-Flung Star
December 15th, 2017, 04:45 PM

For a long time, it was believed that our solar system had the highest number of planets of any star system in the Milky Way. But the recent discovery of Kepler-90i, a rocky planet orbiting a sun-like star located 2,545 light-years from Earth, suggests we might not be that special after all.

Kepler-90i is in fact the eighth planet to be discovered in the Kepler-90 system, a "mini version" of our solar system with its most distant planet located as close to its star as the Earth is to the sun. "For the first time since our solar system planets were discovered thousands of years ago, we know for sure that our solar system is not the sole record holder for the most planets," Andrew Vanderburg, a NASA researcher and an astronomer at the University of Texas at Austin, said in a statement.

As explained in a press release from NASA, researchers were able to identify the previously missed planet by adopting machine learning techniques that are designed to find patterns in data the same way human brains do. The algorithm was developed by Christopher Shallue, a senior software engineer with Google’s research team Google AI.

After learning that NASA's Kepler Space Telescope had collected a large dataset on exoplanets—planets that orbit a star outside of our solar system—Shallue started thinking of ways in which artificial intelligence could be used to make sense of all that data. Together with Vanderburg, he then trained a computer to look for dips in brightness as these are often clues that a planet is transiting a star.

This kind of monitoring had previously been done by using automated tests or the human eye but, as Shallue explained, the new method was able to capture some of the weakest signals that had been previously missed. “Just as we expected, there are exciting discoveries lurking in our archived Kepler data, waiting for the right tool or technology to unearth them,” Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division in Washington, said in the release. “This finding shows that our data will be a treasure trove available to innovative researchers for years to come.”

Shallue and Vanderburg, whose findings are due to be published in an upcoming issue of The Astronomical Journal, now plan to apply their algorithm to the telescope's full data set, which encompasses more than 150,000 stars.

Wishlist: Mysterious Packages, A Moon for Your Room, and Shots With Hamilton
December 15th, 2017, 04:45 PM

Christmas is almost here, but there's still time to pick up gifts for your loved ones or, let's be honest, yourself! In this week's staff picks, we've got calming waves, a book for and about cephalopod-heads, and more. See all the cool stuff our staff wants you to know about below!


Hamilton and Burr Dueling Shot Glasses

$17.95, Fishs Eddy via Amazon

These shot glasses combine two things nerds like me love: history and puns. The Hamilton fever sweeping the nation makes them a perfect gift for this cultural moment, too. —Ariel Azoff, Director of Tourism and Destination Marketing Partnership


Mysterious Package Company Subscription

Price varies, Mysterious Package Company

Maybe you want to track the movements of a Cthulhu cult; or follow the mystery of a pirate’s lost treasure, or investigate the curse of the werejaguar. Whatever type of mystery suits your fancy, the Mysterious Package Company probably offers an experience to suit your needs. Just sign up (or sign someone else up) for one of their storylines and they’ll send you a series of intricately crafted packages full of clippings, letters, and prop-quality artifacts ranging from sinister statues to ominous amulets, that all add up to a complete creepy story. —Eric Grundhauser, Staff Writer


Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

$11.92, Amazon

We might not be able to spend time with aliens or, for the most part, get to know octopuses as individuals. But this amazing book brings us much closer to the first, and tentacle-to-fingertip with the experience of the second. At the heart of Other Minds is the idea that octopuses are the closest we’ve come to experiencing an alien consciousness—one that is playful, intelligent, and totally different to our own. It’s rigorous, thought-provoking, and a totally amazing read. —Natasha Frost, Editorial Fellow


Wave Projector

From $17.99, Amazon

The sea, for all its murderousness in tooth and storm, is in quieter moments a source of deep relaxation—the gentle crash of waves at a distance, the occasional soothing rocking, the way light plays off of a rippling surface. Lots of noise machines and white noise apps have an underwater setting, so why not go all the way with a nightlight that projects soothing waves—like an indoor pool, illuminated from below—across your bedroom… Sorry, I nodded off there. —Samir S. Patel, Deputy Editor


Moon Touch Lamp

$33.99, Amazon

It's been a particularly lunar year. On August 21, eclipse watchers flocked to open fields along the path of totality in order to watch the moon blot out the sun for a few brief yet magical minutes. It was an event so overwhelmingly cosmic that it made people smile, laugh, sing, and cry.

How best to embrace the power of the moon while awaiting the next eclipse (2024, here we come)? A bedside lamp is a good start. This lunar light allows you to snuggle up beside the moon and appreciate its topography in scaled-down form. Fall asleep beside the Sea of Tranquility and dream of floating amid the stars. —Ella Morton, Senior Editor

The Most Amazing Archival Treasures That Were Digitized This Year
December 15th, 2017, 04:45 PM

What do a 1,275-foot painting, a 1958 photograph of Carrie Fisher joining a Brownie troop, and an illuminated manuscript by a famed medieval surgeon all have in common? As of this year, all are newly and freely accessible online (provided that continues to mean anything)—via the Los Angeles Public Library, New Bedford Whaling Museum, and New York Academy of Medicine, respectively.

These efforts are just a drop in the digital ocean: In 2017 alone, the National Archives added 17.1 million digital files (texts, images, sound recordings, and films) to its online catalog. When Atlas Obscura asked Miriam Kleinman, their Program Director for Public Affairs, for a highlight from the year, the digitization team was spoiled for choice. “Having to pick one,” they reported, “is like picking your favorite child.”

From these archives and others, Atlas Obscura has a selection of items that made their digital debuts this year.


Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection

Carrie Fisher and her father, 1958

Christina Rice, Senior Librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection, shared images from the Valley Times newspaper archive. “For 2017, we're on pace to digitize around 5,800 photos, all from our Valley Times Collection, a newspaper photo archive covering the San Fernando Valley from 1946 to 1965,” she says.

This photo shows the late, great Carrier Fisher as a child with her father, singer Eddie Fisher, receiving an honorary membership in the Riverside Drive School Brownie troop. “Carrie, shown in her daddy's lap, was presented Brownie doll and certificate of membership by Gloria Gene Lester who represented the troop," the caption reads. "Brownies toured NBC's Burbank studios and visited Fisher's television show."


New York Public Library

The Picture-Poetry Book, Gertrude McBrown with illustrations by Loïs Mailou Jones

This year saw a new online collection from the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, The Black Experience in Children's Books: Selections From Augusta Baker's Bibliographies. This group of rare and out-of-print books, first identified by librarian and storyteller Baker in 1946, date from between the 1930s and the 1960s. The titles "feature young black characters from the African diaspora and depicts life for children in Africa and North America," says Maira Liriano, Associate Chief Librarian at the Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division.

"Other books in the collection celebrate the black experience through folkloric tales, songs, and poetry," she says, such as The Picture-Poetry Book. Illustrated by artist Loïs Mailou Jones, this title was published in 1935 by black-owned and operated The Associated Publishers, which, says Liriano, was founded by Carter G. Woodson in 1921, "to publish books on black history and culture for the general reader that were in short supply at the time."


New York Academy of Medicine

Chirurgia magna, Guy de Chauliac

The library at the New York Academy of Medicine holds more than half a million volumes, with 32,000 in the rare book collection. From this group, the Academy recently digitized this illuminated manuscript by surgeon Guy de Chauliac, known as the Chirurgia magna ("great surgery"). Chauliac first wrote the 181-page volume in the mid-14th century to record the medical knowledge of the time. This edition is illuminated in gold and silver, with ornate floral borders. The calfskin binding dates from either the time of Henry VII or the Elizabethan era, but experts have not been able to date it precisely.


National Archives

Notable Official Military Personnel Files

Since its creation in 1934, the National Archives has documented American history and culture—from the Women's Reserve Camouflage Corps to Master Plans for National Parks. As of December 12, 2017, their online catalog holds a mind-boggling 38,213,784 items.

These vast holdings including more than 100 Official Military Personnel Files for “historically significant individuals,” says Kleiman, “such as military heroes, political leaders, cultural figures, celebrities, and entertainers.” This includes Joe Louis, Elvis Presley, Desi Arnaz, Arthur Ashe, and Neil Armstrong, and the cover everything from induction letters to medical records to newspaper clippings.

There are intriguing notes throughout the collection: Presley’s record contains a memo objecting to an insignia he wore in a Photoplay magazine shot. Louis's file includes the citation for his Legion of Merit medal. As for Jimmy Stewart, who was already a licensed pilot by the start of World War II, his file includes a letter of recommendation from director Clarence Brown, on MGM letterhead, and a 1941 memo requesting that he should be involved with "motion picture shorts" for Air Force recruits. The following year, the legendary actor appeared in the short recruitment film Winning Your Wings. The first film he made after the war was It's a Wonderful Life, and it's recently been reported he was suffering from PTSD at the time.


Folger Shakespeare Library

"Elephant Folios" from the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery

These aptly-named volumes are huge. A request for more information prompted, for the first time, a weigh-in of two folios. Erin Blake, Head of Collection Information Services, wheeled the bulky, illustrated volumes to the mailroom's postage scale, where each clocked in at between 22 and 24 pounds. Despite their size, Julia Ainsworth, Folger’s Head of Photography and Digital Imaging, explained the digitization process was relatively straightforward, since they fit into a fully extended Kaiser copy stand (a mounting device used for photography).

As Blake explains over email, the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery opened in 1789, and copies of the prints in these volumes were also sold individually at a standard art-print size.* The Folger holds four copies of the publication, but the images featured here are from the folios that contain "8 proof states (printed in order to show progress made on the unfinished plate)," and color images "printed à la poupée, meaning that the printing plate itself carried the different colors of ink, a laborious inking process."


Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas

Gabriel García Márquez Archive

As of just this week, it is now possible to peruse more 27,000 photographs, notebooks, drafts, and other ephemera from the Gabriel García Márquez Archive. The online catalog includes a multitude of treasures from the Nobel laureate author. There is a draft of One Hundred Years of Solitude and several photos of García Márquez with Fidel Castro, and the archive has a tool that allows side-by-side comparison of different works.


New Bedford Whaling Museum

Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World

This was a landmark year for the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts. It digitized what it believes is North America's largest painting, Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage ‘Round the World, an artistic behemoth that measures 1,275 feet long and depicts 240 separate scenes from a whaling journey.

The painting was created in 1848 and would originally have been displayed to audiences as a moving panorama—scrolled across a stage in front of an audience. As you’d expect with a piece this old, large, and well-traveled, it needed extensive restoration before digitization. Now the museum is looking for a room large enough to display it in all its leviathan glory.


Library of Congress

Sojourner Truth

This portrait of Sojourner Truth—abolitionist, women’s rights activist—was taken in 1863 and includes a subtle personal detail. In her lap she holds a photograph of her grandson, James Caldwell. According to the notes on this portrait, Caldwell had served in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment and was held as a prisoner-of-war between 1863 and 1865. This portrait was donated to the Library of Congress in 2017, and it joins an estimated 40,000 new pictures in their online archive this year.


University of Iowa Libraries

Science fiction fanzine from the James L. "Rusty" Hevelin Collection

The University of Iowa is home to, among other collections, some particularly delightful miniature books, a jewel-bound Burmese manuscript—and 10,000 volumes of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fanzines from James L. "Rusty" Hevelin, an avid dealer, editor, and collector. The University acquired the collection after Hevelin’s death and has been slowly digitizing its contents. The enterprise has a populist flavor, since fans have held charity auctions to help fund the collection and the fanzines themselves are available for transcription by volunteers, as part of the University’s DIY History initiative. This year alone, 408 zines, totaling 6,355 pages, have made it online. The volume featured here is called FFF's Illustrated Nycon Review, 1942, and it stand out for the 25 photographs of sci-fi fans glued into it.

* Correction: This story incorrectly stated that the prints were sold directly out of the bound volumes, and has been updated to reflect that they were sold both bound and individually.

In Indonesian Caves, a Treasure Trove of Forgotten Ancient Paintings
December 15th, 2017, 04:45 PM

The small Indonesian island of Kisar, off the coast of Timor, is remote and inaccessible. Home to just a few thousand people, it had never been the site of a full archaeological exploration before a recent expedition by researchers from the Australian National University in Canberra, despite being a key site in the historic international spice trade.

The island is almost entirely surrounded by ancient coralline limestone terraces, which run parallel to the coastline. Over the centuries, the sea has worn shelters and caves into the terraces. Within these nooks and crannies, archaeologists found 28 galleries replete with amazingly well-preserved rock paintings, done by people dead for millennia.


The paintings themselves are tiny, barely four inches in height, and show dynamic scenes including boats, dogs, horses, and people often holding what look like shields, said Sue O'Connor, the lead archaeologist on the project. "Other scenes show people playing drums," she said in a statement, "perhaps performing ceremonies." These figures, painted in shades of ocher, burnt umber and russet-red, remain in extraordinary condition, despite being as much as 2,500 years old. In other places, red pigment has been smeared on the walls to accentuate natural features in the rock.


What they suggest, O'Connor said, was that this remote island likely had a closer relationship with Timor than previously thought, perhaps dating as far back as 3,500 years ago. They may be the result of Austronesian settlers, who introduced domestic animals (those dogs!) to the island, as well as cereal crops. But they also bear striking similarity to images on metal drums produced in what is today northern Vietnam and southwest China 2,500 years ago. Either way, the pictures tell a vivid archaeological story—though exactly what it is, is yet to be deciphered.

Assumption Cathedral and Monastery in Sviyazhsk, Russia
December 15th, 2017, 04:45 PM

The Assumption Cathedral and Monastery.

Sviyazhsk, a rural island at the junction of the Volga, the Sviyaga and the Shchuka Rivers has played a role in the artistic, military, architectural, and religious history of Russia, much of it centered at the Assumption Cathedral and Monastery.

The building, recently added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, was built for the first tzar of all Russia, Ivan IV aka Ivan the Terrible, who founded the town as a military outpost in 1551. He used the island to plan his conquest of Kazan Khanate, quickly building a fortress to serve as his base.

When the tzar captured the region in 1552, Sviyazhsk became less valuable as a military center, and  churches and monasteries began to be constructed on the island. The monastery's purpose was twofold, serving both as a missionary and as administrative center for the recently conquered region.

The cathedral, completed in 1560, is a much more ornate affair. With architecture that reflects Moscow's traditional religious construction elements, an 18th-century renovation pairs that tradition with Baroque influences from Western Europe.

There are also many artistic reminders of the town's founder, with scenes from the Old and New Testaments painted on the wall meant to convey the ruler's strength to the people he'd invaded. The cathedral's frescoes are some of the rarest examples of Eastern Orthodox mural paintings.

The building's grounds are rich with history, too, containing social, religious, and artistic artifacts. While the building may have had military roots, its modern life is less about war and conquest than historic preservation; there have been several conservation and restoration projects over the centuries. 

Oklahoma City Underground in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
December 15th, 2017, 04:45 PM

 Oklahoma City Underground.

The Underground of Oklahoma City covers over 20 city blocks, filled with art and history exhibits that illustrate the individuality of the state and its residents. There is no one entrance to the Underground, but rather many secret entrances scattered throughout downtown. 

Initially opened in 1974 (originally called the Conncourse), the series of tunnels stretches for about a mile. There's a plethora of stores, shops, and even a post office located below the city.

The tunnels are color coded in a variety of neon (pink, lime, orange, yellow, light blue, purple, green, red, and blue), and each color represents a wing, which corresponds to a gallery. There are several glass skyways between buildings without underground connections.

 Many of the secret entrances are in the basements and parking garages of big buildings. The Sheraton Hotel’s basement is one of the more popular and accessible tunnels, but the Banc First Building has access to a larger number of tunnels. Simply take the elevator to the basement. From there, you’ll find an underground cafe, a post office, and a barber shop on your way to a tunnel lined with green fluorescent lights. That tunnel takes you to a yellow tunnel, which leads to an underground Chinese restaurant.

Dig This Look at the History of Jazz Slang
December 15th, 2017, 04:45 PM

Are you worried that you’re the squarest cat at the gig? Think you're not righteous enough? So not righteous, in fact, that people think you’re the man? Fear not, hepsters-in-training! The good people at NPR's Jazz Night in America have got your back.

In this video, jazz musicians like Wayne Shorter, Kamasi Washington, and Sherman Irby take us through jazz slang, which has a long and rich history. Jazz slang gets its roots from post-slavery vernacular, explains Georgetown professor Maurice Jackson, and many of the terms can be traced back to there. America’s “original hepcat” Cab Calloway even published a dictionary of jazz slang in 1939. Titled Hepster's Dictionary, the book contains slang used by musicians and other entertainers in Harlem.

In the book’s forward, Calloway wrote: “I don’t want to lend the impression here that the many words contained in this edition are the figments of my imagination. They were gathered from every conceivable source.” So we have his word that this (most likely) isn’t the Version 1.0 of the great Sub Pop subterfuge of 1992. Either way, many of the words in Calloway’s dictionary are still in use on the jazz stages of today. And we can all dig that.

Video Wonders are audiovisual offerings that delight, inspire, and entertain. Have you encountered a video we should feature? Email

The Week In... Holiday Feats!
December 15th, 2017, 04:45 PM

It’s a wide and wonderful world out there, and frankly we can't always keep up with it all. Atlas Obscura's 'The Week In…' is here to help! Each Friday, we track down the interesting things you didn't even know you missed. This week we’re checking in on all the holiday news in the air.

The holidays are upon us, which means that it’s time again for decorations, Santa visits, stressing out, and generally trying to balance seasonal cheer with sheer endurance. With all of this going on, it should come as no surprise that a few noteworthy holiday stories didn't make their way down your chimney. From Tannenbaums drawn in the sky to a runaway cow, here are all the best stories of holiday feats that you might have missed this week.

Raging Against the Dying of the Christmas Lights

Of the many things that become Christmas keepsakes over the years, like stockings or ornaments, those finicky strings of lights rarely make the cut. But one man in Devon, England, says that he and his family have been using the same string each year since 1969, without so much as replacing a bulb. Originally purchased in a Woolworths by his mother, the lights are now kept on a small artificial tree when not in use to keep from having to bend the old cord, and the family hopes to hit the 50-year mark next holiday season. Even if they can’t, 49 years without a broken bulb is already a Christmas miracle. [Express]

All Signs Point to “HELP”

Earlier this week, a picture took Twitter by storm, of an apprehensive little boy amazingly using sign language to signal “Help,” from the lap of a grinning Santa. According to People, the boy in the picture, which was taken in 2005, is now in his early teens, but at the time was actually utilizing one of the baby sign language signs his parents had taught him. The picture has been a family favorite for years, but now it’s an instant internet classic. Seeing the joy in a child’s eyes during the holidays is its own kind of wonder, but seeing a child signal resigned fear at being placed in the lap of a white-bearded stranger is far funnier. [Twitter]

Take That, Rudolph

Flying during the holidays can be a bit of a nightmare, but some German pilots made it seem like a lot of fun this week when they traced the pattern of a Christmas tree in the skies over the country. According to CNN, the plane belongs to aviation company Airbus’ test team, so it was not carrying any passengers on its looping, curved path. The tree could only be seen on a flight-tracking map, and not from the ground, but the image still manages to bring a little holiday spirit to the otherwise frustrating skies. [Airbus]


Houston, We Have a Christmas Tree

The Airbus sky tree wasn’t the only colossal holiday fir to hit the news this week either. People in central Italy just lit what is called the world’s largest Christmas tree. Well, technically, an astronaut lit it. Composed of almost 500 lights placed in a tree shape on a slope of Mount Ingino, it stretches from the base of the mountain to a star on its peak. The signal to light the tree was sent from the International Space Station. (In the past the switch has been flipped by actors, humanitarians, and more.) Presumably the people of Gubbio, the city over which the tree looms, can skip getting their own trees again this year. [ANSA]

The Cow Who Didn’t Believe in Christmas

Not everyone likes nativity scenes, probably least of all any live animals involved. A cow named Storming recently hoofed it from a Philadelphia church’s long-running seasonal nativity scene. She escaped from her holding pen and took to the streets before cops were able to round her up and return her. But you can’t keep a good cow down, and she escaped again just hours later, essentially dragging the pastor into a nearby parking garage as he tried to lead her back. Of course Storming was once again returned to her pen, but maybe it’s time to give her what she so desperately wants this Christmas: FREEDOM! [6ABC]

Who Steals a Bollard?
December 15th, 2017, 04:45 PM

Bollards, the posts planted in urban areas to delineate space and keep cars where they’re supposed to be, are not meant to move. That’s their whole point. They’re meant to be rooted deeply into the ground; some of them are strong enough to arrest the force of a moving car should its driver careen off the road. It shouldn’t be possible for a person to pull one out of the ground as casually as if they’re pulling up a bunch of carrots.

And yet this happened, earlier this week, outside a pub in Galway, Ireland:

What you are witnessing here is a woman pulling a bollard from the ground and carrying it away with relative ease. Her male companion waits while she accomplishes this feat of strength. They then stroll off, bollard in arms.

The pub in question, Carroll's on Dominick Street, posted this video on Facebook with the request: “Can someone please tell us who this lady is? She has literally pulled our steel bollard out of the ground.”

So far, no one has been able to identify the bollard burglar.

Plastic bollards that protect bike lanes often disappear; fanciful bollard covers have also gone missing in the village of Saundersfoot, Wales, and in Melbourne, Australia. But bollards usually stay in the ground, and stealing a metal bollard seems to be an almost unprecedented feat.

Andrew Choate, who has a particular interest in bollards and goes by Saint Bollard on Instagram, writes that this incident is "very strange." "I think it is pretty rare, because even ones that lay on the ground stay there for quite some time," says Choate, who is based in Los Angeles. "I actually saw one that had been uprooted and went back for it several weeks later, but struggled to get it in my car."*

To be fair, if a bollard can be pulled out of the ground by a person, no matter how strong, it’s a pretty shoddy bollard. (Some bollards can be unscrewed from the ground, but usually this requires a special key to unlock it at the base.) The possibility remains open that this is merely a publicity stunt, and the bollard pulled from the ground was put there for the express purpose of making this video. But we hope that’s not the case. In the best of all possible worlds, a woman in Galway has a bollard in her possession, proudly displayed now and always as a trophy in her living room.

*Update: This post has been updated to include comment from a bollard expert.

Haiku Pathway in Santa Fe, New Mexico
December 15th, 2017, 04:45 PM

The Haiku Pathway

Along this pathway paved with poetry, 36 stones are scattered through the main courtyard of Santa Fe Community College. Each stone is engraved with a haiku, written by students at the school and notable poets from New Mexico.

The Haiku Pathway was created by artist Christy Hengst and poet Miriam Sagan, the project's poetry curator. The mix of poems (some using a more contemporary form that doesn't strictly adhere to the 5/7/5 syllable form) describe the site's surroundings, from mountains to student life, but are also a mix of whimsy, reflection, and humor.

Hengst chose to make the stones from clay, hand-stamping the text into the clay. In an interview with the Santa Fe New Mexican, she said she chose clay rather than carved stone or cement because "It’s softer and it has a slightly more natural or ephemeral feeling. We thought the pieces would look like mushrooms here."

The clay stones dot the path giving visitors a chance to walk slowly through the installation, taking in each verse. 

Wishlist: A Book That Evolves Before Your Eyes
December 15th, 2017, 04:45 PM

Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. But—not unlike the creatures he was writing about—it wasn't quite done. Over the next 14 years, he continued to revise his masterwork, tweaking words, refining phrases, and adding pages and pages of new ideas.

Sure, you can read the sixth edition and get the gist. But if you want to know how it all came together, you might want to check out this version, published by Boston-based information design firm Fathom. Their version of On the Origin of Species color-codes each word of Darwin's final text according to the edition in which it first appeared, so that, while reading, you can watch it grow and change.


It’s aesthetically evolved, too. On the outside, its understated spine helps to camouflage it among more traditional books. Open it up, though, and the color-coding spills out, like a bird of paradise fluffing its tail.

The project also comes in poster form, if you prefer to drink in your intellectual history all at once. And even better, all proceeds go to charity, to help with species survival writ large.

On the Origin of Species Book

$45, Fathom

Alheira in
December 15th, 2017, 04:45 PM

A basket of alheira.

After the Spanish Inquisition spread to Portugal in the 16th century, Jews had to tread very carefully. In an era when interrogators persecuted anyone who did not practice Christianity, openly demonstrating Judaism was a way to get exiled from the country or, worse, burnt at the stake in Lisbon's Rossio Square.

Practicing in secret was also a dangerous game. Informants were everywhere and reported an overheard Hebrew prayer or, equally incriminating, a lack of hanging sausages. So residents of Mirandela devised a clever way to allow Jews to maintain a kosher diet while also appearing to eat pork. Enter alheira, a poultry-and-bread-based sausage that looked just like the porcine variety. Jews were able to display and eat alheira, which sometimes featured game like veal or venison, without compromising their beliefs. The sneaky sausage likely saved hundreds of lives. 

Today, alheira also comes in non-kosher varieties. Portuguese diners of all faiths enjoy the garlicky sausage boiled or fried alongside a runny egg, french fries, or white rice. The nation so loves its life-saving sausage that voters declared alheira one of Portugal's "seven gastronomic wonders" in 2011.

The Alexander Piano in Dunedin, New Zealand
December 15th, 2017, 04:45 PM

The Alexander Piano, one of the largest pianos in the world.

A grand piano is, as its name suggests, a grand sight to behold. But one teenager’s colossal creation surpasses the grandeur of even the most impressive stringed star.

At almost 19 feet long, the Alexander Piano is one of the largest pianos in the world. Adrian Mann began constructing the musical wonder, which he named after his great-great-grandfather, when he was just 15 years old.

He got the idea to build the instrument in 2004, after stumping his teacher with his question about how long brass strings would have to be to create the correct notes if they weren’t wrapped in their usual copper wire. When his teacher couldn’t give him an answer, he set out to find out for himself.

Mann completed his mission in 2009, at age 20. The piano clocks in at an impressive 18 3/4 feet, which is more than twice as large as a typical concert grand. Creating the enormous instrument was a group effort; neighbors and friends provided spaces to build it, and others helped by donating money, timber, and tools. 

The piano toured New Zealand for a while, where it made appearances in shipping terminals, churches, schools, and even at the Otago Museum. Amateur musicians and professionals alike have tickled its keys. But now, after its many stints on the road, the piano has come home to Mann’s workshop in Dunedin. It arrived with a fire department escort in September of 2017, and has remained open for the public to admire ever since.

Why Monks and Nuns Make So Many Beloved Foods
December 15th, 2017, 04:45 PM

In Madrid, Spain, the arrival of December means a proliferation of markets and ferias. There is the main Christmas market on Plaza Mayor, an artisans’ market on Plaza España, and mercadillos, small ferias, throughout the city. But my bullet journal usually bears only one reminder: Expoclausura, Madrid’s annual fair for monastery- and convent-made foods. With a wide selection of marzipan, turrón, polvorones, jam, and other holiday treats, Expoclausura is the place to go to for these celebrated Spanish delicacies. Made by monks and nuns from all over the country, they are known for their simple recipes, high quality, and focus on tradition.

According to Miguel Ángel del Puerto, the founder of Expoclausura, there are a little over 1,000 cloistered monasteries and convents in Spain, and close to 30 percent of them make a traditional food product. But Spanish monks and nuns aren’t unique—their brethren worldwide also veer towards the traditional when it comes to food production. In Germany and Belgium, many monasteries brew beer. In Russia, convents often bake bread and pirozhki, savory and sweet Russian pies. In Greece, monasteries make olive oil, honey, and walnut paste. In France, convents and monasteries produce cheese and wine.

In the competitive world of food and drink, one might expect monks and nuns to struggle. But that doesn’t seem to be the case—at least at the Expoclausura. Most of its stock sells out within the first few days. When I discovered the fair after moving to Madrid, I noticed a jam made by the monks of the Monasterio de Santa Maria de Huerta. Curious about what a mixture of lemon and apple would taste like, I purchased a jar. The next year, when I returned—only one week into the fair—they had already sold almost all of their jams. I made a note in my journal: “November: find out the opening day for Expoclausura and go ON THAT DAY.”

Outside of Spain, the foods of many convents and monasteries find similar, local acclaim. So what makes their products so popular, and why is it that monks and nuns produce so many beloved foods?


I visited Monasterio de Santa Maria de Huerta in search of answers. Located about 200 kilometers northeast of Madrid, the monastery was founded in the 12th century by the Cistercian order. Its complex is a mix of original construction and later additions that combine Roman, Gothic, Plateresque, and Herrerian architecture. Nineteen monks live in the monastery; some hail from as far as Nigeria and Peru. They lead a cloistered lifestyle of prayer, study, work, and limited interaction with the outside world. Work has been an integral feature of the Cistercians’ philosophy for centuries—and the tradition they carry forward when they make their jams.

“Work forms part of our spiritual life,” says Father Diego Romera Fernández. “It [doesn’t] disconnect us—it adds to our life of prayer.” He is one half of the team that heads the monastery’s fábrica, the factory that makes the jam I love. The other half is Brother Antonio Manuel Pérez Camacha.

“In our order, the monks have always lived from the work of their hands,” says Brother Antonio Manuel. “It’s a job with which we maintain ourselves, because for us it is important to lead a way of life like everyone else. Everyone works to live and we do too.” They aren’t alone in their commitment to earning their livelihood—other orders often speak of the importance of working. This dedication, along with the discipline that monks and nuns often exhibit towards their vocation, helps explain the success of their products.


Another reason for that success is their contribution to their local communities. Earnings from the jam production at the Monasterio de Santa Maria de Huerta don’t only go towards the monks’ living expenses. They contribute to the maintenance of the monastery’s old buildings and fund a homeless shelter and alms for the needy.

According to Almudena Villegas, a food historian and member of the Real Academia de Gastronomía, the Royal Gastronomic Academy of Spain, this commitment to helping the poor is one of the major reasons people are drawn to monastic-made foods. Much like the products of companies that use sustainable practices or donate to charity, monk- and nun-made foods have a charitable halo.

The Monastery hasn’t always produced jam. In the 1950s and 60s, they made cookies but couldn’t compete with commercial producers. Later they turned to tending livestock and cultivating the surrounding land. But both the return on their labor and the time demands didn’t fit well with monastic life. “The animals know nothing about hours, dates, or days,” says Brother Antonio Manuel. “They always need to be taken care of. And, besides, to have a good production, one has to have many animals and large expanses of land, and we are a small community.”


To sustain itself, the community switched to jam in the early 1990s. Because they had quince trees, they started by making dulce de membrillo, quince paste. After deciding to expand to other kinds of jams, they sent two monks to learn from the nuns at the Monastery of Our Lady of Los Angeles in Seville, who have been making jams for years. A month-long apprenticeship later, the two came back armed with recipes, skills, and confidence. “If you know how to make one [kind of] jam, you can make them all,” says Brother Antonio Manuel. “It’s simple.” Peach and plum were the first flavors they made: “the traditional tastes,” according to Father Diego.

Access to expertise of their brethren in other religious institutions—as well as to centuries of experience in their own orders—is often a hallmark of monastery and convent production. Another is monks’ and nuns’ natural instincts for local heritage. “[Making of traditional foods] is a reflection of the frequent draw that monks and nuns have to tradition,” says Maria Soledad Gómez Navarro, Professor of Modern History at the University of Córdoba. “They respect [it] greatly and preserve old books with recipes of traditional foods and products on which they relied upon in their monastic [life].” Miguel Ángel agrees: “Convents [and monasteries] continue to live ancient [kind] of life. Their pride is being able to preserve what’s being lost.”


Although the Monastery of Santa Maria de Huerta makes over 35 varieties of jam—some combinations such as kiwi, lemon, and tequila are quite modern—tradition forms an important part of their production. Their recipes are simple: They use only the main ingredients, sugar, and sometimes lemon as a natural source of pectin. There are no preservatives, additives, or artificial colorings in any of their jams. Their labels are designed in-house “by a Brother with artistic talent,” says Brother Antonio Manuel. Most everything is done by hand, and they work in silence.

The fábrica is a 17th-century building right behind the main complex of the monastery. Flanked on two sides by fruit trees and a green house, it consists of several rooms in which the monks wash, peel, mash, and cook the fruit. Plums, pears, apples, and quince come from their own trees, while the rest is bought at a local cooperative. Almost all the brothers join the process when production is in full swing. When I visit, they are making dulce de membrillo and labeling jars of peach jam they’ve recently finished preserving.

Despite the fact that they aren’t professional chefs, Father Diego and Brother Antonio Manuel appear at home running the fábrica. Every step of the jam production has been calibrated to assure maximum efficiency, and everyone has a role. Some brothers wash and peel the fruit, others sterilize, fill, and seal the jars, and yet others complete the production by labeling them. The division of duties follows a strict physical-exertion rule: The oldest get the easier task of decorating the jars, while younger monks do the rest.


This effort is almost entirely homespun. Aside from two industrial-type machines—a jar sterilizer and a bain-marie for cooking the fruit—brothers do everything by hand. They show me their supply closet stocked with pots and pans, plastic containers, knives, and peelers. The set up reminds me of my kitchen, although perhaps a little bigger. They’re especially proud of the peelers they recently discovered for tomatoes. “We used to have to boil them,” says Brother Antonio Manuel. “And now we can peel them cold,” adds Father Diego.

The two work well together. They finish each other’s sentences, and they balance one another when it comes to their favorite steps of jam making. While Brother Antonio Manuel prefers to oversee the cooking of the fruit, Father Diego likes sterilizing the sealed jars. “It’s a beautiful moment to see [the jam] come out, to witness the color it has,” he says.

There is another thing they agree on. Although their preserves have been very popular—they stock gourmet stores in both Madrid and Barcelona and participate in several Christmas markets—they don’t want to expand. “It’s a business, but it doesn’t live like a business,” says Brother Antonio Manuel. “We have to control production, because if it gets out of hand, we would not be able [to sustain it]. We would have to be working all day, and that is not our thing. We [didn’t become] monks for that.”

With a small-batch, traditional, handmade product, religious communities such as that of Brother Antonio Manuel and Father Diego fit well into today’s food ethos. “Now people are looking for more home-made things, better quality [things], and [monks] may have an edge because they produce them the old, traditional way,” says Francisco García-Serrano, Professor of History and Director of Ibero-American Studies at the Saint Louis University of Madrid. Another reason for that edge is nostalgia. “People like to buy [those foods] because they remember when they were little how it was when their grandmothers made them, when they lived in villages,” says Miguel Ángel.

The monks of the Monasterio de Santa Maria de Huerta understand that. Yet while always conscious of tradition, they are also looking to improve by either adding varieties or tinkering with old recipes. They’ve recently brought back the carrot jam they haven’t made in years, and they’ve been working to reduce the quantity of sugar in all of their preserves. But, mainly, it’s all about the passion. “The only secret is the interest that things come out well,” says Brother Antonio Manuel. “It takes work,” adds Father Diego. “Work and dedication,” continues Brother Antonio Manuel. “Especially dedication.”

Motouleng Caves in Thabo Mofutsanyane, South Africa
December 15th, 2017, 04:45 PM

Motouleng Caves.

Clay and stone huts dot the floor of South Africa’s Motouleng Caves, one of the largest rock overhangs in the Southern Hemisphere. Tepees made from straw and grass are scattered throughout the ramshackle dwellings.

A large number of pilgrims journey to be healed by its resident sangomas, or shamans. The healers live within the caves for weeks, months, or even years at a time. Non-healers, too, will sometimes stay for extended periods, often with animals like cats, goats, and chickens in tow.

As the holy caves is a sacred pilgrimage destination for women hoping to get pregnant, some refer to Motouleng as the "Fertility Caves."

People of all religions are welcome at this sacred site. You’ll find practitioners of traditional African religions praying and performing rituals alongside Christian ministers. People dance, sing, and make offerings to appease the ancient ancestors.

There's a fountain at the entrance of the cave, where you can drop a coin into its depths for good luck. Water from the river that flows in the valley below is sometimes included in the ceremonial rituals.

The cavern is part of a broader network of sacred caves within this region of South Africa. People have been journeying to these subterranean chambers for thousands of years, leaving rock paintings behind in their wake. Even dinosaurs once passed through, as evidenced by the footprints found on some of the caves’ floors.

Ricardo Brennand Institute in Recife, Brazil
December 15th, 2017, 04:45 PM

Ricardo Brennand Institute.

Have you ever imagined Brazil as a Dutch-speaking country? That almost happened, as the Dutch occupied Brazil from 1630 to 1654. Though the Dutch left Brazil centuries ago, their armory, weapons, and influences are still present, at least at the Ricardo Brennand Institute.

The institute is housed within a contemporary building in the shape of a European castle. It’s the perfect aesthetic for a museum that takes visitors back to a time of knights and armor, weapons and chivalry.

The Ricardo Brennand Institute holds South America’s largest collection of weapons and armory: daggers, swords, maces, flails, halberds, crossbows, knives, stilettos; some even decorated with semi precious stones. The armory come from mainly European countries, though India and Japan are represented as well. The collection includes 27 full-plate armors and even protections for dogs and horses.

The castle-like building was modeled after a Tudor-style construction. It has its own coat of arms, drawbridges, and even original European altarpieces. In addition holding its large collection of weaponry, it also houses a library full of over 60,000 items and the world’s largest collection of paintings by the renowned New World landscape artist Frans Post.

Ricardo Brennand, a Brazilian art collector, inaugurated the institute in 2002. It has offered art and cultural education programs to the local community ever since.

A New Multilingual Sign Language Dictionary Looks to the Stars
December 15th, 2017, 04:45 PM

How did the universe begin? Clench your hands into fists, and line them up in front of you. Then throw them out to your sides, fingers outstretched. The motion should look like this:


Did you get it? Whether you know it or not, you have answered my question: You just said "big bang" in French Sign Language.

Over the past six years, a working group within the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has collected space-related signs from various sign languages. Earlier this month, they announced the result: a publicly accessible list of 47 common astronomical words, each translated into up to 31 sign languages, including Portuguese, Russian, and Finnish.


The project was inspired by a French Sign Language (LSF) astronomy dictionary, Les mains dans les étoiles, which was released in 2009. Compiled by a team led by Dominique Proust, an IAU member and an astrophysicist at the Paris Observatory, the guide collects about 300 astronomy-themed LSF signs, from "asteroid"—a combination of signs for a solar orbit, "detail," and "rocks"—all the way to to "zenith," an open hand held above the head with the opposite index finger pointing at it.

A few years later, the IAU created a working group, "Astronomy for Inclusion and Equity," that aims to facilitate broad access to astronomical resources for underserved populations. One such group is the deaf community, which has historically experienced prejudice and discrimination, including outright censorship.

For example, in France, sign language was forbidden in schools for deaf people after the Milan Congress of 1880, explains Beatriz Garcia, a professor at the Institute of Technology in Detection and Astrophysics, and one of the leaders of the project, along with Proust and the University of Valencia's Amelia Ortiz-Gil. "The progress of signs was completely stopped for almost [an entire] century." As a result, entire planets and ideas never got their own signs.

As always, if there's no word for something, it's harder to talk about it. Right now, speakers of sign language who run into such limitations are left to take things a letter at a time—often an unwieldy proposition. (As Kate Meredith, an astronomy outreach specialist unaffiliated with this particular project, put it to Newsweek, "Imagine fingerspelling out 'electromagnetic spectrum.'")

For Les mains dans les étoiles, a team of deaf collaborators worked to fill these gaps, coining new signs for existing objects and concepts. Their proposed sign for "quasar," for example, combines the signs for “same," "galaxy," "energy," and "power." As the dictionary's introduction explains, it essentially describes the imaginary act of physically discovering a quasar: “I see a small brilliant source of light in the sky; I open it to see the interior; I am amazed to see the central area of a galaxy enclosed in this space, [and its] considerable energy.”

So far, Garcia says, the French dictionary has been a success, used by schools for the deaf and public education programs. As a result, the IAU group is working to provide similar resources for many other languages. Over the past few years, they have translated the LSF dictionary into American Sign Language and Spanish Sign Language, and this latest project aims to expand the concept even further.


The list is still very much in progress. "If you look at the sheet, there are words without signs," Garcia says. They hope to attract local volunteers to address some of these gaps. Along with providing resources for speakers of those languages, Garcia continues, a more complete list would also enable cross-language comparisons.

This could help accelerate the IAU group's ultimate goal: an international sign language for astronomical words. Like a very specific Esperanto, such a language would allow experts from around the globe to communicate with each other. "We know this could be very difficult, but it is our dream," says Garcia.

In the meantime, Garcia's favorite sign? "Without a doubt, 'astronomy,'" she says. Like all signs, it differs between languages—22 are pictured at the top of this article. But in many, it involves two hands coming together to form a telescope, looking off into the unknown.

Yumbilla Falls in Peru
December 15th, 2017, 04:45 PM

Yumbilla Falls, the fifth tallest waterfall in the world.

Yumbilla Falls tumbles down over four tiers; in each the water cuts through the forest to momentarily pause in churning, rainbow-covered plunge pools before carrying on over the next rim.

From a distance, it looks like a sliver of silver parting the forest, serene and graceful. But if you dare to get closer to a plunge pool, you’ll feel the raw power as the cascade batters the rocks, kicking up spray like a storm as it roars through the wooded landscape.

Yumbilla is the fifth tallest waterfall in the world. It's tucked away in the Bosque de Cataratas Gigantes de Cuispes (“Forest of Gigantic Waterfalls of Cuispes”) near Chachapoyas, Peru. Watching the water cut down through the cloud forest for 2,940 feet is a stunning sight.

Though it's beautiful, not many people have heard of Yumbilla Falls. And not many people have seen it—at least, not in comparison to the far more famous and touristy Gocta Waterfall eight miles to the south. Both waterfalls are huge (Gocta ranks anywhere from 16th to a doubtful third tallest), and both were only recently made known to international audiences.

Yumbilla, despite outranking its neighbor in terms of height, wasn’t known globally until two years after Gocta gained widespread attention. For Yumbilla, international recognition came in 2007 following an expedition by the Geographical Institute of Peru. Researchers used laser instruments to determine its height. The locals, of course, have known about it for as long as anyone can remember.

Building a Life-Sized Gingerbread House Takes Over 10,000 Cookie Bricks
December 14th, 2017, 04:45 PM

Gingerbread houses tend to be associated with either the holidays or the gruesome story of Hansel and Gretel. If the fairytale witch of lore left her forest cottage for the city, she might build a house such as the one displayed in the Fairmont San Francisco hotel’s lobby, most of which is edible.

Every Christmas, the hotel’s engineering and culinary departments team up to produce a building on a Hansel and Gretel scale. Flat gingerbread bricks line the house’s facade, and smaller pieces curve to line the windows. Each brick is attached with snow-white royal icing. The hotel’s culinary team also uses the icing to pipe in the cracks between bricks, sealing them firmly together. This sweet cement is made of egg whites, vinegar, and sugar.

The house’s entire footprint is thirty-five by ten-and-a-half feet, and it's 25 feet tall. The bottom floor has a a toy-filled workshop, where children (and the occasional adult) press their faces against the glass for a look inside. Another nook houses a six-foot tall nutcracker. The second floor is off limits to visitors, but features a spinning Christmas tree (which is fun to watch in the time lapse video, twirling away at warp speed.) Modeled after one of San Francisco’s Painted Lady Victorian homes, it’s a structure that visitors can both wander through and peer into.

For the last five years, the gingerbread and candy has decorated an ever-expanding wooden frame. Each year, the candy covers a new (and larger) layer of Masonite siding. Though competitive gingerbread house makers and purists might object to non-edible substances being used, it’s necessary to support the combined weight of 10,250 gingerbread bricks, 3,300 pounds of icing, and 1,650 pounds of candy.


This is executive chef Oscar Gonzales’s second year working on the house, and chief engineer Richard David’s fourth. It started out small, Davis says. Its first iteration was as a display surrounding the entryway to the hotel’s Laurel Court restaurant. Since then, the house has expanded each year. The most recent addition is a dining room for 12 guests.

The theme changes each year, too. This year, it’s Santa’s workshop. Two familiar red-and-white-clad animatronic legs kick furiously from a rooftop chimney, almost hitting the ceiling. A small electric train weaves through the workshop, and multicolored lights set around the structure wash the house in colorful hues.


The scene is decidedly wintry, but planning the 2017 house started in July. While most San Franciscans were dreaming of escaping the fog for sunny beaches, engineer Davis and chef Gonzalez began sketching out this year’s winter wonderland, going over theme changes and deadlines.

The engineering team’s frame modification began in August, in what Davis describes as “an overflow parking area” down the street. Building the large, new annex meant an earlier start than usual. While the frame was being modified, the hotel’s pastry shop baked thousands of gingerbread bricks. Gonzales’s recipe for 100 bricks includes 45 pounds of flour and three gallons of molasses. Once baked, the bricks were frozen and stored. But even with a five-month window, it was difficult to bake enough, Gonzales says. Next year, he plans to start in July.


Once the frame is finished, it’s carted in pieces—up one of San Francisco’s hills—to be assembled in the hotel lobby overnight. It’s added just before Halloween, and Davis laughs when he recalls the gloomy, undecorated frame looming over the hotel lobby like a haunted house. All of November is for decoration.

“It’s a big project for everybody,” Gonzales says. (The staff still has non-gingerbread duties.) A team of 12 from the pastry shop rolls out the prepared bricks, attaching them to the Masonite with spackle-like royal icing. After every brick is placed, then piping decorations and arranging candy begins. The pastry team busily lines windows with green-and-white, striped candy canes and Christmas-tree Peep marshmallows. Gingerbread-man shaped Peeps are placed along windowsills and balconies with mathematical precision. In a last flourish, the team uses piping bags to draw dramatic icing whorls, studded with gumdrops and gumballs. Since the house is so tall, much of the work is done on of scissor lifts and ladders.


The pastry team even gets help from Primed and Prepped, a local after-school program that prepares teens for culinary and hospitality careers. Meanwhile, engineering installs lights and animatronics. The Fairmont has calculated that it takes 772 hours from engineering and 375 from the culinary department to complete the entire display.

After so much work, acting like Hansel or Gretel and feasting on the walls is strongly discouraged. "We have a lot of overzealous patrons who walk in and actually eat a lot of the coverings of this gingerbread house," Davis says sadly. He points out that the candy and cookies have been exposed to open air and casual touching for weeks. “It’s really disgusting.” But both children and adults nibble away with abandon. Gonzales says that the house has to be touched up with new cookies and candy at least twice a week. “They go to town on it,” he says.


Gonzales and Davis even tested shell-like coverings for the candy this year, hoping to make them harder to peel off. But everything that worked was also fairly toxic, so they had to give up. Despite the destruction, they say the excitement that greets the house every year is rewarding.

While Davis, Gonzales, and their teams work hard to make the house visually stunning, the gorgeous smell of gingerbread that fills the lobby is almost as compelling. But the smell, and the house itself, are fleeting wonders. On January 2, the house is dismantled. The icing, gingerbread, and candy is scraped off the house, and since it’s San Francisco, it’s composted. The frame will re-appear next year under a new layer of cookies, and the only thing thrown away is the Masonite.

The Grudge (Al Ba’sa) in Beirut, Lebanon
December 14th, 2017, 04:45 PM

 Al Ba’sa, or The Grudge, Beirut's thinnest building.

A sliver-thin house in Beirut, built in 1954, is the ultimate display of how deep sibling annoyance can go. Known as The Grudge, or Al Ba’sa in Arabic, the house is just a bit over 13 feet at its widest point, and just around 2 feet at its narrowest.

At a side view, the "house" built of brotherly spite looks more like a wall than a place to live. But despite its narrow dimensions, Al Ba’sa is habitable, and is the skinniest building in the city. 

As the story goes, two brothers inherited land from their father. They couldn't decide how to split the land between them, a dispute complicated further by the fact that one part of the property had been cut over the years by various municipal infrastructure projects, leaving a portion of the land a small and sort of odd shape. One brother decided to take that small, oddly shaped bit of land and build on it, constructing a building that fit the confines of the land with the added bonus of blocking his brother's ocean view. Not only would his brother not be able to enjoy his spectacular sea view, but because he was now facing what was essentially a wall his property values would sink, too. The perfect plan.

Over the years, there have been some tenants in the house that sibling rivalry built. Each floor of the structure contains two apartments. For years, one was in use as a brothel, while the others served as refuge for a family fleeing the war.

Today the house stands as a reminder of a long-ago feud, and it probably will for a very long time; current city zoning laws state that the plot of land the house sits on is too small to build on. If The Grudge comes down, nothing else can be put in its place, making the land more profitable with the house than without it. As architect Sandra Rishani pointed out in her essay on the house, Al Ba’sa "continues to exist grudgingly and also defiantly in one of Beirut’s most prime locations, only time will tell what will become of it."

NASA Goddard Rocket Garden in Lanham, Maryland
December 14th, 2017, 04:45 PM

Sounding rocket.

Just outside of Washington, D.C., you’ll find the Goddard Space Flight Center, one of NASA's primary research laboratories. As the agency's first space center, scientists and engineers at Goddard were involved in the agency's achievements from the very start. Most of the campus is closed to the general public. However, behind the visitor center, there’s a "Rocket Garden" filled with decommissioned rockets and explanatory plaques.

Among the rockets on display are an Apollo capsule that was used for training astronauts before missions, sounding rockets that were used to carry scientific instruments into orbit and collect atmospheric data, and a massive 114,170-pound Thor Delta-B rocket.

While most work on manned spaceflight missions was eventually transferred to later NASA facilities in Texas and Florida, Goddard remains one of the primary facilities for projects involving the organization’s unmanned missions. Perhaps most notable of the satellites controlled from Goddard is the Hubble Space Telescope, which was launched in 1990. Its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, is meant to launch in the spring of 2019.

The center was established in May of 1959, a year after President Eisenhower signed the National Aeronautics and Space Act that established NASA. It's named after Dr. Robert Hutchings Goddard, an American engineer who was a pioneer in the field of rocketry.

Inside the visitor center you can also find exhibits on the work being done in the facility, models of the Hubble Space Telescope and the International Space Station, and a moon rock.

Pan de Jamón in
December 14th, 2017, 04:45 PM

It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas in Venezuela.

The name pan de jamón ("ham bread") doesn't do this Christmas pastry justice. Rather than imagining white bread topped with a piece of ham, picture a cinnamon roll. Swap the sticky glaze and cinnamon filling for a golden egg wash and thin slices of savory ham. Keep the raisins, but ditch the walnuts. Add pimento-stuffed olives. Feeling fancy? Layer in some bacon, too. That's pan de jamón. 

Every Venezuelan knows the aroma of hot, fresh bread, smoky ham, sweet raisins, and salty olives means the holidays have arrived. As soon as early November, commercial bakeries and home cooks start churning out these sweet and savory delights. They spiral the dough around the fillings to form logs, then bake and slice the giant loaf into thick rounds.

Venezuelans enjoy this stuffed bread throughout the holiday season, but there's sure to be one gracing every dinner table on Christmas Eve. Complete the spread with chicken salad, roast pork, and tamales. Wash it all down with some eggnog, and have yourself a merry Venezuelan Christmas.

Lampreia de Ovos in
December 14th, 2017, 04:45 PM

Even some cartoonish dessert lampreys have scary teeth.

Portuguese nuns have doubled as egg yolk–slinging pastry chefs for hundreds of years, but lampreia de ovos is one of their most unique offerings. This dessert replica of a terrifying, ancient sea monster—made from 50 egg yolks—is a Christmas tradition.

According to popular lore, nuns made eggs a convent essential after discovering that egg whites kept their habits sharp and wrinkle-free during ironing. After laying claim to Brazil in 1500, Portugal started importing sugarcane as an abundant, inexpensive ingredient. Resourceful nuns looked at all the extra egg yolks and, with the nation's gold mine of sugar, began creating rich, yellow desserts to support themselves.

But why the lamprey, an eel-like, bloodsucking fish with several rows of spiraling, sharpened teeth, of all things? As one travel guide puts it, the Portuguese "so love this ugly river fish they make golden egg effigies of it for festive occasions." For hundreds of years, the fish served as a suitable red-meat replacement (its texture is comparable to slow-cooked beefsteak) for penny-pinchers and Christians abstaining for Lent. The oldest known Portuguese cookbook, dating back to the 16th century, includes only one fish recipe. It's for lamprey. A stew made from the fish and its blood is still popular throughout the country.

Lampreia de ovos requires no actual parts of the lamprey. All you need to make one is sugar syrup, almonds, and eggs. First, build your lamprey’s winding body from a paste of sweetened yolks and grated almonds, then dress it in sheets of yolks and syrup (“capes”) and strands of beaten egg and sugar. Once you’ve assembled the lamprey’s basic shape, you can brown it in a hot oven or use a red-hot iron to recreate its signature spots.

Finally, don’t forget to animate your new friend with a set of candied cherry eyes and a couple of peeled almond teeth. Top it off with sugary egg threads, then glaze and decorate with candy. Delicious, nutritious, and not so horrific after all.