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The AMAZING HISTORY and HIDDEN WONDER all around us. Some other neat stuff, too.
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    If you visit a traditional lambic brewery in Belgium, you'll see spiders spinning webs among the casks. They are not a nuisance, and brewers don’t swat them away. The spiders are there by design to protect the fruity beer from fruit flies. The webs do, however, create a fitting environment for lambic, which can seem a little like magic. Using the oldest of all modern brewing styles, brewers summon wild yeast, resulting in funky, sour beers.

    Whether the goal is golden geuze or a raspberry-flavored framboise, brewing traditional lambic is very different from brewing typical beer. Brewers mix a batch of “wort” from boiled barley and unmalted wheat, and after repeated heatings and the addition of aged hops, they expose the wort to the open air. The wort is then colonized by yeast and other bacteria from the air, a process called “spontaneous fermentation.”

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    According to Dave Janssen, an editor of lambic.info who also runs the brewing blog Hors Catégorie, spontaneous fermentation is an ancient concept. These days, most commercial breweries are as sterile as possible to combat rogue yeast strains and bacteria. Surrounded by glistening fermentation tanks, brewers add a carefully chosen yeast, then seal the tanks to prevent contamination. In traditional lambic breweries, though, barrels can bubble over and wooden beams go unpainted. Lambic’s complex, puckery flavor depends on wild strains of yeast from the surrounding environment. Which is why brewers leave the brew exposed to wood and air.

    Brewer's yeast, as manufacturers know and a recent Belgian study confirmed, smells like heaven to your average fruit fly. Spiderwebs trailing from cask to cask are tolerated, says Werner Van Obberghen, managing director of the Drie Fonteinen brewery in Beersel, Belgium, because spiders go after the flies.

    Unlike mouse-chasing cats, spiders can’t be trained to hunt down every last fly. Instead, their webs are a symbol of a fermentation process that wouldn’t work if nature were kept outdoors.

    Health regulators haven’t always appreciated the wild nature of lambic breweries. In the mid-2000s, the Belgian state food agency compelled one brewery, Boon, to paint its walls with food-grade paint. The brewers complied, and then re-introduced wild yeast by spraying the walls with beer.

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    “Luckily, politicians … soon understood that with spontaneous fermentation, some artisanal and craft produce needs a natural environment rather than a sterile one,” writes Van Obberghen. Comparisons to ripening cheese seemed to help make the case.

    But there may be an even bigger threat to traditional lambic on the horizon. Lambic is only brewed in colder months, since warm temperatures encourage less-than-savory microbes to infect the wort. Janssen says climate change may mean fewer days cold enough to brew, and Van Obberghen agrees. In response, he plans to open another brewery to produce more lambic during increasingly rare cold days.

    Lambic is popular—Janssen says that aficionados believe true lambic comes from only a handful of breweries in the Brussels area, and one brewery-museum, Cantillon, receives 50,000 visitors a year. For the sake of the beer they love, lambic fans, brewers, and spiders alike should hope this winter is a cold one.

    We’re launching a food section! Gastro Obscura will cover the world’s most wondrous food and drink. Sign up for our weekly email to get an early look.


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    There are certain subjects that, for many students, can be scary to talk about in the classroom. "If I were going to come in and say, 'Today we are going to discuss religious discrimination,' or 'race relations in America,' everyone would retreat into their corners," says Asa Mittman, a professor of art history at California State University, Chico.

    So if he does want his students grapple with such topics, Mittman might instead begin a discussion about blemmyes, a monster taken very seriously by medieval scholars. "A blemmye is a headless person who lives in the Red Sea," Mittman explains. "For scholars at the time, there were two important questions about blemmyes: Can they be converted to Christianity? And if they were, would they grow heads?"

    Such are the problems considered by MEARCSTAPA, a group of scholars founded by Mittman in 2007. MEARCSTAPA, which stands for Monsters: the Experimental Association for the Research of Cryptozoology through Scholarly Theory And Practical Application, is committed to the study of medieval monsters—where they came from, what they can tell us about the people who dreamed them up, and increasingly, what lessons they might still offer today.

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    There are a few dozen active members of MEARCSTAPA. They collaborate on projects—panels about flaying and disguised demons; books about sea monsters and serial killers—and gather at medieval conferences. The group's name is a purposefully ridiculous acronym, but it is also a word from Beowulf, coined to describe the monster Grendel, which translates to "border-walker" or "margin-stepper."

    "It's this great word that describes monsters writ large, as very many of them are at the edges of things," says Mittman.

    MEARCSTAPA's stated focus is the Middle Ages and early modern period, and most of the scholarship it has produced is focused on those eras. But "a lot of what we do is more relevant than it might seem," says Mittman, who defines monster scholarship as "the study of how individuals and groups—particularly powerful groups—dehumanize, disempower, and ultimately attempt to destroy other groups."

    Thus the continuing relevance of, for example, blemmyes: a group of monsters whose change in religion, it was thought, might cause a change in physicality. If you follow this line of thought through to its conclusion, he says, "you wind up with perspectives about who is and who isn't able to belong to a religion and who is and who isn't a legitimate member of a nation—a citizen—based on race."

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    For MEARCSTAPA members, monster-hunting can often mean pinpointing what a group of people is afraid of, and looking for manifestations of it. "You get monsters that speak to the particular anxieties of cultural moments," says Mittman. For example, in the 1950s, as McCarthyism swept through the United States, horror movies focused on body-snatchers and other disguised extraterrestrials. The sexually repressive Victorian era gave us vampires, which remain anythingbut. For this reason, Mittman says, certain current crazes were eminently predictable to those in the know: "You say, 'Oh, the economy's going down,'" he says. "'We're going to have zombies again.'"

    Sometimes, monsters can be spotted in less obvious manifestations. Watching newscasters talk about this year's hurricanes, Thea Tomaini—a professor of English at USC Dornsife, and a member of MEARCSTAPA's executive board—was struck by how blatantly we demonize them. "They’re given names, they're given personas," she says. "Every single time, you see the news outlets referring to them as monster storms."

    This is also true, she says, of the larger problem of climate change. As people grapple with its causes, and try to figure out what can be done about it, Tomaini is reminded, she says, of a much older line of questioning: "Why has the monster come to us? Who has sent the monster, and why? What does the monster want?"

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    Problems can also arise when people disagree on who the real monsters are. Such confusion reminds Mittman of another beastly medieval staple: the false prophet, often depicted as a frightening, many-headed creature. Of course, to the people following him, he doesn't look frightening at all. "It would be wonderful to have good, comforting monsters—the kind where you can look at it, see its fangs and horns, and have everyone agree, 'oh, we should fight that,'" says Mittman. "But that's not where we are."

    Recently, MEARCSTAPA has been grappling with this particular type of monster close to home. As white supremacists have begun using medieval imagery to signal their devotion to an imaginary, racially homogenous past, the field has found itself divided over whether and how to condemn these associations. "Medieval studies is kind of on fire about this," says Mittman. "It has gotten people to show where they really stand on these issues, and that has sometimes been monstrous to see."

    MEARCSTAPA sees this controversy as an opportunity to put their expertise to work, and they are hosting a session about it, called Monstrous Medievalism, at next year's International Congress on Medieval Studies.

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    When MEARCSTAPA first formed, monster scholarship "was treated like a kooky endeavor," says Tomaini. "If you said 'I work on monsters' in a job interview, you might not get very far. But over the past ten years, interest in monster studies has really grown." Mittman agrees: "Now it's a totally standard normal part of the field," he says. Two years ago, when he was on his way to a conference, a fellow scholar asked him about his focus. "I told her with much more confidence," he says. "And she sighs dramatically, and she says 'Monsters! That's all anybody works on!'"

    Explaining their jobs to those outside the field is still difficult, though. "When I'm at a cocktail party, and I'm asked 'What do you do?', you should see people's faces," says Tomaini. Monsters may change, but some things stay the same.


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    In the atrium of the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, behind a row of stanchions, is an array of sugar skulls ranging from the size of a gum ball to the size of a human head. Made of compressed sugar, the skulls have metallic sequins for eyes and neon icing for hair. Shiny pieces of colored hand-cut foil are stuck to the molds to create intricate detailing. According to Elvira Mondragón Garcia, each skull has a different expression that ranges from curiosity and happiness, to sadness and discomfort. “My sentiment is that a bit of me goes into its creation and whatever I’m feeling in the moment, is reflected back in its design,” she says in Spanish.

    Mondragón, a fifth-generation sugar skull maker from Toluca, Mexico, says that all of her family’s products are handmade, including the skull molds. “We’ve been approached by people who tell us they can create machinery that allows us to mass produce,” she notes. “But we don’t want that. It removes the magic of what makes every skull special.”

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    Perhaps that attention to detail is what’s allowed the Mondragón family business to endure over the past 169 years. Sugar skulls are one of the most recognizable symbols of Día de los Muertos, the Mexican holiday honoring deceased friends and relatives. Even though the holiday occurs in late fall, the family's busy season begins in February back in Toluca. Thanks to the holiday’s growing popularity, they sell sugar skulls year round. The museum sells more than 22,000 of the Mondragón sugar skulls annually, and it is the sole source of income for Elvira and her three siblings.

    The sugar skulls are reminders of a long history that can be traced back to the Aztec empire. Celebrations honoring the underworld and its inhabitants “could be found in Mexico well before the European invasion,” says Delia Cosentino, an associate professor of art history and architecture at DePaul University who specializes in the visual culture of Mexico, in an email.

    “While sugar was a colonial introduction, the Aztecs made edible sculptures out of amaranth, corn, and honey,” she says. “In the U.S., the sugar skull has perhaps become the single most familiar icon [of Día de los Muertos], as aspects of the tradition are increasingly embraced—and for better or for worse, commercialized.”

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    Mondragón is the first to admit the process is hard and, at times, even dangerous work. However, she takes pride in being a modern-day sugar skull maker, knowing it’s a tradition handed down by her ancestors.

    The process begins with the family making clay molds to form the sugar skulls. The clay form is placed in a stone oven for three full days to set, and to remove the naturally occurring and toxic plomo, or lead, from its cast. The mold is then tested by pouring the sugar mix into it. If the sugar skull is easily removed from the mold, no lead remains. Lead in the mold creates a vacuum that causes the sugar to stick to its form. If any piece clings to the form, it indicates the presence of lead. If that’s the case, it is returned to the oven for another 24 hours to melt any remaining trace of the element.

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    The sugar skull recipe poured into the molds is easy enough to make and Mondragón offers it up willingly. It’s equal parts sugar, water, and a splash of lemon juice, brought to a boil in a large copper pot. Because of the high temperature and large quantity of the mixture, children are kept away from the perilous process. Instead, they’re tasked with decorating or cutting pieces of foil.

    When pressed for the amount of time the concoction needs to be heated for, Mondragón’s only answer is that she can tell “by the size and consistencies of the bubbles.” She explains that her family has been doing it for so long that they eye these details, not the time, to ensure the process is complete. If boiled for too long, the mixture caramelizes. Not enough time on the fire and the mix won’t hold, causing the skull to melt.

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    Though the small, apple-sized skulls are one of her most popular sellers, the life-sized version is what a Mexican family typically purchases. Each skull, engraved with a family name, is then placed on the ofrenda, or altar, of the dead being honored during Día de los Muertos. At the end of the holiday, the skull is taken from the ofrenda and broken into pieces to be distributed and consumed.

    And how does Mondragón, whose own father passed away earlier this year, deal with the reminder of death on a daily basis? She says it’s not too hard. “If you don’t acknowledge a person’s death, it’s like they didn’t live. We are not celebrating their death, we are remembering their life.”

    Additional reporting contributed by Elizabeth Quan Kiu.


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    This post was written by Carly Pifer and originally appeared on Per la Mente. Discover more like this at www.perlamente.com.

    Waiting for a bartender to shake or stir your drink is so yesterday. Brooklyn creator Michael Cirino, boasting some serious Italian heritage cred—check the mustache—decided to change the game. That’s kinda his M.O.: His culinary experience company A Razor/A Shiny Knife has long conceived and executed unexpected and unusual events, like serving a fancy lunch on the L train or organizing a 100-course meal for a discerning crowd.

    His latest endeavor, for which he built a gigantic bar that doubles as launching and landing pad, is making cocktails (like the recipe below) with drones.

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    The Pilot

    Stir all ingredients and serve over ice. Garnish with candied ginger.

    • 1/2 oz. lime juice
    • 3/4 oz. ginger syrup
    • 1/2 oz. Fernet-Branca
    • 1 1/2 oz. gin
    • Candied ginger

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    No flowers grow on the grave of Minnie Dean, the baby farmer. She killed her charges with abandon, and a hatpin. She was the daughter of a clergyman, but bound for hell. She was wicked and wanton, and deserved to die. And if you were a naughty child growing up in Southland, New Zealand, she was coming to get you.

    Despite 120-odd years of circulation, almost none of these "facts" about Dean, born Williamina McCulloch sometime around 1844, are true, according to historian Lynley Hood, author of Minnie Dean: Her Life and Crimes. Dean was the daughter of a train conductor, but passed herself off as educated and middle class. She was desperate and impetuous, though probably not evil—and hatpins didn’t come to New Zealand until well after her arrest. “In fact,” Hood writes, “there is no evidence that Minnie Dean ever stabbed anyone with anything.” She was, and likely will remain, the only woman in New Zealand ever to be executed. For decades, stories of Dean’s murderous spirit hung heavy over Winton, a southern town 20 miles from Invercargill, the city where she was tried and put to death.

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    Here is what we do know. Dean offered unwanted small children a home, for a fee, and some 27 of them passed through her life. Ten are known to have survived, six are thought to have died, three are unaccounted for despite efforts to find them, and the remaining eight—who knows? According to Te Ara, the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, “Dean claimed that seven children were adopted by families who wished to keep the adoptions secret. The police and the public believed that the missing children were murdered.” Either way, three tiny bodies were found buried in her garden, and two of those deaths were at the center of an 1895 trial that shook the nation. Even decades later, in 1922, a journalist writing for the New Zealand Truth stated: “No more remarkable series of crimes [was ever] committed in Australasia, few more remarkable in the world.”

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    Today, we might call Dean a foster parent, but back then, she was what was rather callously known as a “baby farmer.” At the time, an illegitimate child was a path to social ostracism—and in Scotland, where Dean and many of these early settlers to New Zealand had come from, a concealed, out-of-wedlock pregnancy that resulted in an adoption could result in death or banishment for the disgraced mother, if she was found out. But just “£10 or £20 to someone like Minnie Dean could solve the problem,” writes New Zealand historian James Belich. Desperate families would pay baby farmers a lump sum or a monthly stipend, or both, to assume care of the unwanted child. At least 16 of Dean’s charges are known to have been born out of wedlock.

    Baby farmers may have provided homes, even loving ones, for those children, but more importantly, they relieved the biological mothers of the consequences. “It was quietly accepted that the child’s chances of survival were not good,” Belich adds, though Hood disagrees. “They confidently believed that their unfortunate offspring would be under the charge of one who would, in every respect, prove a kind and exemplary mother," she writes.

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    Dean lived in near-destitution with her husband, Charles Dean, deep in New Zealand’s South Island. She is now thought to have come alone from Scotland to conceal an illegitimate child of her own. Save for an aunt, she knew almost no one in Southland except Charles, whom she met there. At the very bottom of the earth—dark, damp, remote—they sought to make a life for themselves on the frontiers of Western civilization. Charles is sometimes described by historians as an alcoholic, and he was certainly extremely bad with money. Papers at the time called him “mild and weak” or “feckless and dull.” The couple slipped in and out of bankruptcy, and eventually moved to Winton with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Charles found work as a laborer. Minnie’s options were more limited. She taught children locally, but turned to baby farming to make ends meet.

    Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, Dean placed a series of anonymous advertisements in newspapers across the South Island. “A respectable married woman wants to adopt a child; comfortable home in the country,” read one. “WANTED, by a respectable married woman with no young children—a baby to nurse, or one or two young children to bring up, or a baby to adopt,” went an earlier iteration.

    Dean simply did not have the means, even with payments from the biological families, to look after so many children, Hood writes. “There can be little doubt that Minnie loved her charges (though she may have loved some more than others) and she had every intention of caring for them all to the best of her ability.” This career choice was underpinned, she writes, by “a stubborn irrationality.”

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    Around 1890, local police began to grow wise to the surfeit of babies at the Deans’ home, known as The Larches. At any one time, there may have been as many as nine children in her care under three years of age. The home was dirty, overcrowded, and inadequate to deal with a family even a fraction of that size. In 1889, a six-month-old baby had died. Two years later, a separate inquest deemed the cause of death of another tiny child, barely six weeks old, to have been inflammation of the heart valves and congestion of the lungs.

    Police grew concerned and started watching more closely. Dean's anonymous newspaper advertisements revealed that she was still looking for more babies. There was also evidence that she was unsuccessfully attempting to take out life insurance policies on them (which wouldn't have been especially unusual). By 1893, Dean had attracted still more attention, culminating in a letter from the commissioner of police to the Minister of Justice. A flood of babies were believed to be entering the Deans’ home—and no one knew exactly what was happening to them. Dean became more and more furtive.

    In 1895, the police found something. On May 2, a railway news agent spotted Dean boarding a train and carrying a baby and a hatbox. On the return trip, the baby was gone, and the hatbox appeared suspiciously heavy. In a 53-page statement written while awaiting trial, Dean stated: “When I got on the train, I laid the child down on the cushions. She was asleep.” Before boarding the evening train, she had dosed the sickly infant with laudanum, an opiate commonly given to children to ease coughing or agitation. But she had misjudged the quantity. Later on the journey, she looked over and realized the child was dead. Dean panicked. That night, in a hotel room, she stuffed the body in the box, tied it up, and, writes Hood, “set off for the railway station with her hat box, purse and parcel as if nothing had happened.”

    The news agent summoned the police, who searched fruitlessly along the tracks for the baby. Eventually, they found her corpse in Dean’s garden, buried alongside the bodies of two more young children. One was recently deceased, and the other a skeleton, from an older boy Dean claimed had drowned. The following month, Dean went on trial for murder, amid a media frenzy. “You can’t get past that public outcry over a woman harming kids in her care,” says New Zealand historian Bronwyn Dalley. There was outrage, certainly, but also the titillation and novelty of having a woman on the stand, facing serious charges. “This was the time when sensationalist crime reporting was booming, and many cases were presented in the papers quite theatrically,” Dalley adds. Outside the courts, enterprising locals sold grisly souvenirs—baby dolls in hatboxes.

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    Dean was presented as a murdering monster, but more than that, says Dalley, “there was a real groundswell of opinion over baby-farming,” with other high-profile cases overseas—involving high volume and neglect—sparking massive public and police interest in the practice in New Zealand. All of this likely contributed to the outcome of Dean's trial, and her place as the only woman in the country to be actually executed. (At least three other women had previously been sentenced to death for child murder, but had their sentences reduced to life imprisonment.)

    On the morning of August 12, 1895, Dean was hanged in Invercargill. It was midwinter, around the last dregs of the morning's sunrise. At 7:57 a.m. she was escorted to a private gallows by a gaoler, surgeon, chaplain, sheriff, and hangman. A crowd swarmed outside the prison walls, even though nothing could be seen or heard. The sheriff asked whether she had any final words. “No,” said Dean, “except that I am innocent." As she fell through the trap door, newspapers reported that she cried out: “Oh; God, let me not suffer!”

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    Dean was dead, and the New Zealand police sought to put an end to the practice of baby farming. She had directly inspired the 1893 Infant Life Protection Act, says Dalley. “Anyone who took in kids under two for more than three consecutive days with payment had to be registered as a foster home and were inspected by the police.” A few years later, in 1896, this was expanded to children under the age of four. But its effectiveness was curtailed by the many demands already on the police, says Dalley, who were “way too busy and unskilled to be trotting round inspecting the care of homes where kids [were] kept.”

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    For almost a century, Dean was widely considered a kind of bogeyman, a specter to help get kids to behave. But in the 1980s, a television series screened in New Zealand began to spark queries about her guilt—or, rather, her innocence. Next, Hood’s book, published 99 years after Dean's death, revealed that most of what was thought to be known about Dean, including her origins, how she got to New Zealand, and her crimes, were fictitious. Hood's sustained research revealed desperation and optimism to be more realistic motives than bloodlust, coupled with the not atypical use of laudanum to calm the children in her care. “Whether the real Minnie Dean deserves her terrible place in New Zealand's folklore is far from certain,” writes Hood. In 2009, a distant Scottish relative paid for Dean to have a headstone on her unmarked grave in Winton cemetery.

    Whether all of this has changed public opinion of one of New Zealand’s most notorious criminals, memorialized on stage, in verse, and on screen, remains to be seen. “There is a power in the stories people tell to explain things, and to guard against things, or to make things special," says Dalley, "and no end of ‘truth,' and I use the word advisedly, will change that.”


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    Sicilian sea slugs are ferocious hunters. Their prey of choice? Spiky hydroids, and lots of them. Each sea slug, or nudibranch, can snack on as many as 500 of the much smaller predators a day. All this hunting can presumably get pretty tiring, but scientists at the University of Portsmouth in the United Kingdom, have found that nudibranchs are careful to maximize their meals. They prefer, the scientists observed, to hunt hydroids that have recently had a meal of their own, like pirates claiming the booty of their prey.

    "Effectively we have a sea slug living near the bottom of the ocean that is using another species as a fishing rod to provide access to plankton that it otherwise wouldn't have," marine ecologist Trevor Willis, lead author of the paper in Biology Letters, said in a statement.

    Hydroids, distant cousins to coral, feed on tiny plankton and other small crustaceans. Scientists offered sea slugs a variety of dining options: plankton, hungry hydroids, and hydroids that had recently consumed a whole lot of plankton. The brightly colored nudibranch Cratena peregrina, with its luminescent blue tips, picked off the well-fed hydroids twice as often as those that hadn't recently eaten (though no one's sure how the sea slugs were able to tell the difference).

    Researchers have given this newly observed behavior a name—"kleptopredation," a combination of "predation" and "kleptoparasitism," or the practice of stealing food from another species. Rather than simply taking the food from another predator, the sea slug is eating that predator as well as the prey it expended energy to catch. In short, that's two meals for half the effort and a more diverse diet in the process. Sometimes crime really does pay.


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    Steve McQueen. Grayson Perry. Damien Hirst. These are some of the winners of the Turner Prize, one of the U.K.'s most prestigious and controversial art awards.

    "Play on Words" (a copy of Macbeth on top of the Oxford English Dictionary). "Jamming With Muddy Waters" (a jar with jelly, water, and mud in it). "Birds Flew" (an empty bird's nest with flu relief medicine inside). These are some of the winners of the Turnip Prize—a bad-pun-based art contest invented by Somerset innkeeper Trevor Prideaux—which has spent 19 years taking potshots at the Turner while having some fun of its own. "I like to have a laugh, and a little poke at the establishment," explains Prideaux.

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    Prideaux invented the contest in 1999, after one of those "my-kid-could-paint-that"-style conversations that have long dogged modern and contemporary art. This one focused on Tracy Emin's "My Bed," which was one of the works shortlisted for the Turner Prize that year.

    "We were talking about it over a beer, as you do," says Prideaux. "We decided we'd run a competition called the Turnip Prize, for people to create equally bad pieces of art. The rest is history, really."

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    Since then, things have run fairly smoothly. The art is judged by a three-person panel—Prideaux and two previous winners. The trophy is a turnip, nailed shoddily to a board.

    The prize's ethos may seem egalitarian. But in the judging process, a kind of reverse snobbishness emerges. "We get ones that are too much effort," Prideaux says. In 2007, they went so far as to disqualify one entry, a Banksy spoof called "By the Banksea," for "trying too hard." (The prize that year went to Bracey Vermin's "Tea P," a group of used tea bags in the shape of the letter "P.")

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    After nearly two decades on the committee, Prideaux knows the greats as soon as he sees them. "The ones where someone hasn't put in any work, but has a really great idea: they stand out a mile," he says. One favorite, from 2010, was the then-topical "Chilli'n'Minors"—one large chili pepper and three small ones. Another is "Man Hole Cover," a pair of extra-large men's Y-front briefs. "One that didn't win that I liked was just a fly in a saucer," he says. "You can guess the title."

    This year's contest opened this morning, and Prideaux has already received a couple of entries. Submissions close on November 21, and he expects more to pour in as the weeks go by. Last year, they got a record 99 entries. A shortlist is then drawn up, and the winner is announced on December 5, to take some of the spotlight (or the pressure) off the Turner Prize winner, unveiled the same day.

    Prideaux expects great things, as always. "It never ceases to amaze me," he says. "You'd think that all of the puns and everything had been done." But you'd be very wrong.

    If you'd like to participate, you can drop your entry off at The New Inn, Combe Batch, Wedmore, Somerset BS28 4DU.


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    When Philip Broughton boarded a flight to the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station in 2002, he didn’t intend to become an Antarctic bartender. Following a terrible day at work, he had decided to get away, and, after a Google search and a two-year application process, he found himself on an American research station in Antarctica, working as a cryogenics and science technician for a year and a day.

    A few weeks after his arrival in the summer of 2002, Broughton walked into the local watering hole, Club 90 South. “The only seat left was the one behind the bar,” Broughton says of his initiation into the pantheon of South Pole bartenders.

    Broughton sat behind the bar and put his feet up against the beer case. Inevitably, someone asked for a beer. Glaring, Broughton handed one over. “Don’t get used to that,” he said.

    But then someone asked if he knew how to mix anything. Which, thanks to a Playboy cocktail guide, he did. Using his own stash of Angostura bitters, he whipped up a Manhattan.

    “And there I stayed for the rest of the year,” Broughton recalls.

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    Explorers have always packed booze. Ferdinand Magellan never sailed without wine and sherry. During the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, Sir Ernest Shackleton stocked his ships with whisky to fight off the cold and endure voyages that could last more than three years.

    Just as it was with Antarctica's first visitors, so it is with its current residents. Every year, thousands of scientists, researchers, station staff, and even artists descend on Antarctica’s 45 research bases to live and work at the end of the world. (There are even more research stations if you include stations staffed only for the summer.) But those thousands winnow down to a persistent and hardy several hundred during the six nearly sunless winter months. (Once summer ends, planes and ships can rarely reach Antarctica due to storms and sub-zero temperatures that freeze fuel.) Their only external contact is through phones and the Internet. So the “winter-overs” come prepared … with heaps of alcohol.

    Club 90 South was one of the many bars that serviced Antarctic research stations during Broughton’s winter on the continent. Broughton says that almost each of the 45 stations has a bar.

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    After stepping inside from temperatures that reached -100 degrees Fahrenheit, says Broughton, Club 90 South felt like a portal back to the real world. Constructed by the Navy “Seabees” Construction Crew out of building and shipping scraps, the cozy space had the warm, smoky atmosphere of harbor-side barrooms, with chairs, couches, and a classic wooden bar scattered around a low-ceiled room.

    Over the bar, empty Crown Royal bags (the drink of choice at Club 90 South) hung from strings of Christmas lights like bulbous, satin ornaments. The freezer was a hole in the wall to the frigid snow and ice outside. Entertainment consisted of poker tournaments, watching TV, listening to music, reading left-behind books, talking with family and friends back home, and experiencing the station tradition of stripping naked (except for shoes) and running from the station sauna to the South Pole marker.

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    No one owned Club 90 South, and no one paid. Instead, people shared supplies they brought from home (as part of the allocated 125 pounds of luggage per person) or bought from the station store. Bartenders did not earn salaries—only kudos. Broughton started tending bar Fridays and Saturdays, and soon he spent most nights after dinner mixing cocktails and pouring a “disturbing number” of Prairie Fire shots, which Broughton made with tabasco and tequila. He served absinthes from the astrophysics team, Black Seal rum from a Bermudan at McMurdo Base, and Bundaberg rum from an Australian. Mixing his research job with his side hustle, Broughton made cocktails using liquid nitrogen, bringing the haute cuisine trend of molecular mixology to the bottom of the world.

    The best (and worst) part? No official last call.

    Club 90 South, with its homey, pool-room decor and casual atmosphere, became a lifeline for many barflys. In a place of near-eternal darkness that lacked restaurants and movie theaters, it doubled as a station “melting pot.” The bar “bridged the gap between the ‘beakers’ and ‘support,’” says Broughton, referring to researchers on National Science Foundation grants and contractors who operated and built the stations.

    “A few months in, everyone in the bar knew everyone’s stories,” he adds.

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    But it wasn’t all cryogenic cocktails and sharing news from home. During the long months on a barren, isolated ice cap, drinking was often the only escape from the cold and monotony.

    It’s an understandable reaction. Sink into a smooth glass of a favorite liqueur, and the cold bites a little less. The distance from loved ones feels more manageable. The time until the flight home, just a bit shorter. Some people drank to make the days go by faster. Regulars used pickaxes to clean frozen vomit off the ice outside Club 90 South.

    Alcoholism can be a big issue in Antarctica. While there are no official statistics, some stations held Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and the hearsay was troubling enough that in 2015, the Office of the Inspector General audited several American stations. Due to reports of drunkenness on the job and alcohol-fueled fights, the National Science Foundation, which supports and operates U.S. scientific interests on the continent, is considering mandatory breathalyzer tests.

    But Broughton says the honor system and communal atmosphere at Club 90 South helped prevent the affliction.

    “It got people to drink together, rather than alone in their rooms,” says Broughton. “While you might drink more than normal with good company, that is still healthier than unchecked drinking alone, as good company might also slow you down.”

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    Broughton says he swapped out soda for booze when people drank too much, and he preferred to serve people so they could pass out in the bar, instead of watching them stumble out the door where, completely inebriated, they could hurt themselves or pass out in the snow.

    After Broughton left the research station in 2003, Club 90 South closed during an effort to modernize Amundsen-Scott. But the legacy endures at other station bars, including Gallagher’s Pub, Southern Exposure, and the Tatty Flag. Broughton, meanwhile, is working as a radiation safety specialist at UC Berkeley, and he credits his time in Antarctica with his newfound interest in alcohol history and his appreciation for good, high-quality booze.

    “I learned that if I’m going to consume alcohol, I’d better actually enjoy what I’m putting in my mouth,” he says. “Enjoyment is more than mere flavor.”

    And would he go back?

    “I would happily return for another winter” if my fiancée could come along, Broughton says. “I dream of Antarctica most every night. It is a haunting place.”

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    We think we understand how planets form, or at least we thought we did.

    As a star develops from a gas cloud, the thinking goes, a disc of dust and gas forms around it. Particles within this disc begin to glom together, and then millions of years and collisions later you have a solar system like ours—discrete chunks of rock and gas orbiting a mature star. But a newly discovered planet orbiting a tiny red dwarf has scientists looking at the theory anew.

    Recently an international group of astronomers led by the University of Warwick were working with the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile when they spotted faint, intermittent red light coming from a star 600 light-years away. It appeared to be a star with a planet—no longer an unusual discovery by itself—but to their surprise, the red dwarf, half the mass of the Sun, has a gas giant the size of Jupiter going around it.

    NGTS-1b, the planet has been dubbed, shouldn't be there. Up until now, scientists believed that "small stars can readily form rocky planets but do not gather enough material together to form Jupiter-sized planets," according to the University of Warwick press release. Rocky planets have indeed been found around smaller stars, including the seven orbiting the red dwarf TRAPPIST-1.

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    The more new planets we find outside of our solar system, the less we seem to understand about how they form. For example, between 2008 and 2010, researchers found four gas giants orbiting star HR 8799. According to models, these planets were either too close or too far from their star to have formed at all. Giant planet HD 106906b is a similar case. Approximately 11 times the size of Jupiter, it is also much farther from its star than it ought to be. Another surprising member of the exoplanetary menagerie is the HD 188753 system, featuring the first known planet in a “triple star system” formed by a star, which orbits a star, which orbits another star. (Even George Lucas didn't imagine a "triple sunset.")

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    This latest discovery may not be the only one of its type we're going to see. According to Peter Wheatley, Professor of Astrophysics at University of Warwick and one of the project leaders, "NGTS-1b was difficult to find, despite being a monster of a planet, because its parent star is small and faint. Small stars are actually the most common in the universe, so it is possible that there are many of these giant planets waiting to found."


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    After someone accidentally dropped Jeff Koons’s Red Balloon Dog in 2008, the fractured porcelain sculpture was considered damaged beyond repair. Similar works by Koons have been valued at tens of thousands of dollars, but after an art insurer ran a total-loss claim on the piece, Red Balloon Dog was, legally, worth nothing at all.

    Koons’s broken sculpture is, however, worth something to Polish artist Elka Krajewska, founder of the Salvage Art Institute, which actively collects pieces that have been declared a total loss, and promotes conversations around them. Red Balloon Dog is now part of a rotating inventory of damaged artwork given new life in Krajewska’s traveling exhibition.

    In many ways, art insurance is a lot like car insurance. When the cost to fix a damaged piece (or car) exceeds its perceived worth, or the damage is considered too extensive, the work goes through a total-loss claim. The value of the piece officially becomes zero, and it’s declared “salvage art" by insurers. Some of these salvage works end up on the walls of art insurance offices the world over, but more often they’re stored in warehouses, in a kind of limbo while the insurer figures out if they can be auctioned to make up for some of the paid-out claim.

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    Hearing about these mausoleum-like warehouses for art was a revelation for Krajewska. During a conversation with her neighbor, who at the time did public relations for the art insurance company AXA Art, Krajewska came up with the idea of creating an institute that would give new life to the forgotten salvage art inventory. When she brought her idea to AXA Art, CEO Christiane Fischer told her she’d been thinking about what to do with total-loss works all her professional life.

    The Salvage Art Institute (SAI) was founded in 2009 in New York City, and a few years later AXA Art donated the first 40 pieces to the institute, along with—just as importantly—the corresponding paperwork documenting the art’s journey from market to being declared a loss. Since then, the collection has existed as a traveling exhibit with a rotating display of around 50 works. It was last exhibited in Warsaw in 2016, and preparations are underway for a show in Munich.

    Each exhibit includes SAI's policies in a large block of text on the wall. "SAI is a haven for all art officially declared as total loss, removed from art market circulation," it reads. SAI dubs these objects, freed from the constraints of the art market, “No Longer Art.” But for Krajewska, it’s not the destruction of a piece that’s important, but the evolving narrative that goes along with suddenly becoming valueless. The legal designation becomes a new chapter in an artwork’s story, and informs how we experience it. Krawjeska feels that a new kind of value—free from markets—emerges from legal worthlessness.

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    Each object’s narrative begins in more or less the same way. A work is created and declared art by way of the artist’s signature. It is exhibited in a museum or displayed in a private collection. But it's here where each story spins out in a different direction. Some pieces are damaged during shipping, or by leaking water, or mold. Krajewska says a new signature, this time the insurance adjuster’s, "marks the severance of the work from the artist."

    Documents with notes such as “suffered a long L-shaped tear on the proper left side,” “mold grew all along the bottom edge,” and “the head had become detached from the base” are displayed alongside the objects at SAI exhibits. The tone remains as neutral as possible, and maintains the legal frame to the art’s demise.

    SAI comments on the storytelling power of this documentation in its book about the project, No Longer Art: A Narrative. It reads, “at times bursts of feeling and character broke through … scribbles and cross-outs, exclamation points, celebratory language, personal addresses.… There was not just legal formality here, but narrative structure.”

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    One object among SAI’s rotating inventory is a massive two-panel drawing, Untitled (Prayer), made with graphite and gunpowder by American artist Linda Bond. The black-and-white imagery was damaged by a water leak in 2007. And one of the panels suffered additional, rather poetic, harm: “An unsupervised child entered the unattended gallery and drew his hand across the entire length of the ten foot drawing.”

    After settling with the insurance company, Bond, like many artists dealing with damaged works, just wanted to move on. But, she says, she “was delighted that the work—although damaged—had a second life.”

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    SAI's mission is to not just give these works a second life, but to promote a dialogue about the way we ascribe value in the art world. Preserving salvage art effectively inverts the typical aim of the art market, which only deems works with financial value worth protecting. Krajewska believes young people are “hungry for reassessments of their belief systems, and deprived of dreaming because of economics and extreme competition in the art world." A conversation about "No Longer Art" is one way to break through stale old conventions.

    Now, along with the rest of the damaged works at SAI, people are welcome to touch Bond’s drawing. Most find it a thrilling experience, to engage with objects once entirely off-limits to any kind of tactile interaction. Often, after handling Bond’s drawing, visitors touch other objects, and leave gunpowder fingerprints all over the place. Where, it all suggests, does art begin and end?


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    Inside the Great Pyramid of Giza, the largest of the ancient Egyptian pyramids, there are three main chambers, aligned on a north-south axis—a subterranean chamber, the Queen’s Chamber, and the King’s Chamber. Connecting the King and Queen’s Chambers is a Grand Gallery, which runs more than 150 feet. Above that, according to a new study published in Nature, is a “big void” that had never been detected before now.

    Using technology that detects muons—high-energy cosmic particles that rain from space down to Earth—a team of scientists from Japan, France, and Egypt have found evidence that there is an empty space at least 98 feet long above the Grand Gallery. According to their report, three teams using three different muon-detecting technologies independently confirmed the existence of the void.

    If what they found is accurate, this will be the “first major inner structure found in the Great Pyramid since the 19th century," they write.

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    Scientists first started using the tools of particle physics to study ancient structures in the 1960s. In 1967, the experimental physicist Luis Alvarez gained access to the Pyramid of Khafre—the second largest of Giza’s ancient pyramids—and installed a muon detector in an underground room.

    Alvarez and his colleagues were looking for chambers that might not have been found through other methods. Muons can pass through thick layers of stone, and by analyzing their relative positions, detectors can form a picture of any structure that the muons had passed through. In particular, this sort of analysis can show where there are large gaps in the stone, representing hidden rooms.

    In that first experiment, the data from the detectors did not reveal any unknown secrets in Khafre’s pyramid. In the decades since, though, the technology for muon detection has improved immensely. Today’s instruments pick up less noise and are far more precise. Advances in computational power mean that optical analysis, simulations, and real-time data acquisition have all improved, too.

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    With these new tools, a team of scientists from Nagoya University, the HIP Institute in Paris, Cairo University, and France’s Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) began in 2015 to reexamine some of Egypt’s most famous sites. The team, which was made up of physicists and engineers, rather than Egyptologists, aimed to bring “a fresh eye and maybe a naive and candid eye” to the pyramids, HIP’s Mehdi Tayoubi told reporters in advance of the Nature paper’s release.

    The project at the Pyramid of Khufu began with nuclear emulsion film installed by Nagoya scientists in the Queen’s Chamber. Once that test showed evidence of a void above the Grand Gallery, the team turned all its tools toward confirming the existence of that space. A second test was less conclusive, but a third instrument designed by the CEA, which uses gaseous detectors, showed evidence of two notable empty spaces in the pyramid—the Grand Gallery and a space just above it.

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    This newly detected large void is somewhere between about 160 and 230 feet from the ground, about a third to halfway up the giant structure. There’s no clear access to it, and so far it does not appear to have been hidden deliberately.

    The authors of this new study have avoided speculating about the purpose of this void—whether it’s a structural element or a chamber full of undiscovered artifacts, or plays some other role in the monument’s history. As outsiders to the study of pyramids, the team could face some skepticism from Egyptologists. After all, saying you’ve found a hidden chamber in the most famous pyramid in the world is very large claim.

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    They hope, though, that scholars from other disciplines will jump at the chance to learn more. “This void needs more research,” Tayoubi said. “What is it? We need the help of other people.” All they can say for sure right now is that they are sure there is a space in the pyramid not full of stone, and that it is definitely rather large.


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  • 11/02/17--05:30: The Reclaiming of the Shrew
  • The other day I was checking my email and was excited to see a note from Neal Woodman. Woodman is a research biologist and curator of mammals at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and every time he gets in touch he has something interesting to say.

    The first time we talked, he told me about the Mystery of the Mule Deer, which involved an apocryphal journal and one very eccentric naturalist. He also hinted that he had discovered the full extent of a famous historic prank. The next time I heard from him, he revealed the details: John James Audubon, of avian illustration fame, had invented at least 28 fake species of fish, snails, birds, rats, mollusks, and plants to play a joke on a rival.

    The thread that connected these stories was shrews, small, pointy-nosed mammals that can be found around the world. Woodman is a shrew guy, and his specialty leads him down winding paths to obscure, intriguing stories. I knew I would not be disappointed by the work he was ready to talk about now—his hunt for a set of missing Egyptian shrew mummies.

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    For Woodman, the hunt for the missing shrew mummies began while he was working out the taxonomic history of the sacred shrew, Crocidura religiosa, otherwise known as the Egyptian pygmy shrew. Compared to more common European shrews, the sacred shrew is on the small side, with a notably long and squarish tail. The first time modern naturalists ever encountered this species, it was as a black, shriveled mummy.

    In 1826, an Italian archaeologist, Joseph Passalacqua, went to Paris with the bounty he’d taken from an excavation near Thebes, Egypt—figurines of wax, limestone, and enameled clay; jade, lapis, and amethyst jewels; musical instruments, combs, and games; works in bronze, gold, and silver. Among the more than 1,900 items Passalacqua brought to France were scores of mummified animals, from crocodiles and cats to owls and ibises, including more than two dozen mummified shrews.

    In ancient Egypt, priests created animal mummies as messengers to the gods, which were then bought by worshippers as votive offerings. The animal's soul, it was believed, would carry the petitioner's pleas to the spirit world. Archaeologists found rooms filled with animal mummies, so many that at one point, they were treated as trash, used for ballast, and tossed on French fields as fertilizer. Shrew mummies, thought to be connected to the falcon-headed god Horus, were a common variety.

    In Paris, a French naturalist, Isidore Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire, examined the embalmed shrew remains that Passalacqua had brought and identified the long-dead shrews as a new species. (Later his initial finding was confirmed. In fact, sacred shrews are still around in Egypt today.) He described the sacred screw in a few different documents and, originally, Woodman’s interest was in determining which take should be given priority.

    “It was one of these anal-compulsive details that guys like me think is really crucial,” he says. But soon he was preoccupied with a different detail. At some point before 1968, the mummy shrews that had been used to name the species had disappeared.

    “I kept thinking, 'What had happened to the mummies?'” Woodman says. “They were in Paris, for God’s sake. It was the place to be for knowledge and research. Alexander von Humboldt was hanging out in Paris. That’s where all the educated people were. What happened? Why aren’t they in a French museum?”

    He decided to find out.

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    For taxonomists and others who care about accurate descriptions of the natural world, the first members of a species ever identified—the “type series”—are critical scientific objects, references that show how and why someone thought they qualified as a unique species. The specimens mark the beginning of human knowledge of a particular type of plant or animal, and if they’re lost it’s impossible to see exactly what that first scientist did.

    It happens all the time: A type series might be damaged by pests, misused, or thrown away. In this case, though, there was no record of how the mummy shrews had met their end. Although the mummies were officially declared lost in 1968, as early as 1827, Saint-Hilaire lamented that “all that remains to us today of the shrews from Thebes” was his illustrations.

    Even if the shrew mummies were gone forever, Woodman wanted to know what happened to them.

    As he started his research, he came across the catalogue that Passalacqua made for his Egyptian discoveries and began to think about how the shrew mummies weren’t typical taxonomic specimens, which are collected by naturalists or biologists. Usually, taxonomic specimens would have been preserved in a natural history collection, but these were considered archaeological specimens. So, he wondered, what had happened to the rest of Passalacqua’s finds?

    Passalacqua hadn’t gone to Egypt just for scientific glory. The artifacts he brought back from Egypt were assets, ones that he soon put up for sale. The French government had no interest in the collection, but the renowned naturalist Humboldt was familiar with it and convinced Friedrich Wilhelm IV, the crown prince of Prussia, to buy the whole lot. Both the artifacts and Passalacqua, hired as the director of the new Royal Museums, went to Berlin.

    The trail was easy enough to follow from there. In 1850, the Prussian crown’s entire Egyptian collection moved to the Neues Museum, where it remained until World War II, when the museum was damaged and the collection was divided between East and West Germany. In 1991, after reunification, the scattered Egyptian artifacts, including the Passalacqua collection, were reassembled as part of Berlin’s Egyptian Museum.

    Woodman e-mailed the museum to ask if they might still have the shrew mummies in the collection. Finally, he received an answer—"Oh, yes, we have them."

    “We had been looking in the wrong place because we’re biologists,” says Woodman. For decades, scientists interested in the shrews had assumed the original specimens were lost, because they were expecting to find them in a natural history collection. They hadn’t thought to look in other museums. It turned out that when Saint-Hilaire lamented the loss of the shrews, he was probably referring to their move to Berlin, which, Woodman writes, was then “an intellectual backwater that even Humboldt attempted to avoid.”

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    Today, Berlin’s Egyptian Museum is a world-class facility, which Woodman visited with his colleague and coauthor Rainer Hutterer, who works at the Alexander Koenig Research Museum in Bonn. They had rediscovered the shrews, and they wanted to have a fresh look at them.

    To the layperson, there’s not much to see. “If you’re an expert, you can tell they’re shrews, but otherwise they just look like ugly blobs,” says Woodman. They’re very dry, very valuable ugly blobs, though, so they have to be handled carefully.

    Since the Passalacqua collection came to Berlin, some of the original mummy shrews were indeed lost, likely in the turmoil of the 20th century. But 19 remain. By measuring and examining the specimens, and looking inside using X-rays and microCT scans, Woodman and Hutterer were able to pick a new lectotype—the single best example of the original specimens, which will serve as the primary taxonomic model for the species—and redescribe it in the context of modern shrew knowledge.

    While the scientists examined the collection, though, Hutterer noticed that two of specimens didn’t fit the description of the sacred shrew. They were even smaller, with hind feet just a quarter of an inch long—a new species of shrew, never before documented in ancient or modern times. They named it Crocidura pasha. The results of their work have now been published in the journal Zootaxa, and, barring any further historical misunderstanding, future scientist should know just where to find the type specimen. The mystery of the mummy shrews was laid to rest.


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    In July 2017, the multimillionaire writer (!) Zhang Wei visited St. Moritz, Switzerland, on vacation with his grandmother. The young author—he's just 36—of martial arts fantasy stories sat in the bar of the Hotel Waldhaus Am See, where glass shelves are lined with thousands upon thousands of shining bottles of rare whiskies. One caught his eye: a 1878 Macallan single malt, unopened.

    He asked to try it, and was told it wasn't for sale. He asked again, and this time the manager, Sandro Bernasconi, rang his father, who had bought it 25 years ago, when he had been manager of the hotel. "[He] told me we could wait another 20 years for a customer like that so we should sell it," Bernasconi told the BBC. "Mr. Zhang and I then opened the bottle together and drank some of it." The price tag? A record-breaking $10,000 for a single dram.

    But something was off. Zhang described his drink on the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo. The taste, he wrote, was good, but it didn't have much "struggle" inside. But, he figured, it was the age that was significant to him. "My grandma who accompanied me on this trip was only 82, yet the alcohol was 139 years old—same age as my grandma's grandma," he wrote, in Mandarin. "It's not just the taste, but also history." Internet sleuths began to ask questions. Whisky industry experts, likely zooming in as tight as they could, saw discrepancies in photographs of the bottle's cork and label. Zhang had moved on, but Bernasconi was unsettled, and called in professionals.

    A sample of the rare single malt made its way to specialists Rare Whisky 101 (RW101) in Dunfermline, the former Scottish capital. Researchers from the University of Oxford performed carbon dating, and found that the date on the label was almost a century off. Rather than being from 1878, they said, it was almost certainly a 1970s knock-off. Next, lab tests by alcohol analysts Tatlock and Thomson showed it was probably a blended Scotch, and not, in fact, a single malt at all. Bernasconi had believed the bottle to be worth an eye-watering $300,000. Instead, Rw101 told the BBC, it is "almost worthless as a collector's item."

    Bernasconi boarded a plane to China to bring Zhang the bad news, and a full refund, in person. "He thanked me very much for the hotel's honesty and said his experience in Switzerland had been good," the manager said. "The result has been a big shock to the system." In the meantime, RW101 cofounder David Robertson said they would remain on the case of rogue bottles in an ongoing war against "fakers and fraudsters who seek to dupe the unsuspecting rare whisky consumer." Single malt lovers beware.

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    We know a few things about giraffes. They are the tallest animals on the planet, with tongues nearly two feet long, which they use to eat hundreds of pounds of leaves and buds from acacia and mimosa trees each week. And a group of them is called, appropriately, a tower. But when it comes to the evolution of their family, Giraffidae, which goes back to the Miocene—roughly 20 to 5 million years ago—there are still a lot of unknowns.

    That's because of the 30 or so species that scientists think have existed in the past, today we only have two, the giraffe and its forest-dwelling cousin, the okapi. Until now, fossilized remains of some ancient giraffid species have lacked enough skull material, and the defining characteristics they can hold.

    A team of paleontologists led by María Ríos from Madrid’s National Museum of Natural Sciences recently unearthed the well-preserved remains—including the skull—of a previously unidentified member of the family, dubbed Decennatherium rex. The D. rex, found at the fossil site of Cerro de los Batallones, just outside of Madrid, adds a key piece to the puzzle of giraffid evolution, and suggests that though giraffes and okapis are each other's closest relatives, they are still from far sides of the family tree. “We’re preserving relics of two very distinct groups of giraffes that were morphologically very different,” Ari Grossman, of Midwestern University in Glendale, Arizona, told the New York Times. Ríos and her team announced the discovery in a paper in the journal PLOS ONE.

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    Remains of three other examples have previously been unearthed in Spain, but none had the skull, which made assigning them to the species difficult. Male D. rex were probably about nine feet tall and about two tons in weight—putting them right between their surviving cousins in terms of size. Unlike their descendants, they had two, rather than one, set of horn-like structures called ossicones: a short pair above the eyes and a second, longer pair that swept up and back. They also had long, flat snouts, more reminiscent of a moose than a giraffe. Notably, the site of the discovery extends the range of giraffids to the Iberian Peninsula, perhaps making them a genetic link between other members of the family in Europe and Africa.


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    Katharina T., a resident of Berlin in the early 20th century, had a deep voice and masculine appearance, and preferred to wear men’s clothing at home and in public. In 1908, they—there's no record of which pronoun Katharina preferred—went to visit the sexual reformer and “sexologist” Magnus Hirschfeld, to apply for official documentation that would allow them to wear men’s clothing in public: a “transvestite pass.”

    Perhaps dozens of these passes were granted by German police between 1909 and 1933, the year Adolf Hitler became chancellor. The term “transvestitism” at that time encompassed people of all gender identities, from those who occasionally wore men's or women’s clothes on weekends, to those who today might well identify instead as transgender, a term that was not in common usage at the time. Cross-dressing individuals were vulnerable to arbitrary decisions of the police, usually according to how well they “passed.” While it wasn’t illegal to cross-dress, per se, the practice often led to charges of being a “public nuisance,” which could mean six weeks’ imprisonment or a fine of 150 marks—and police were “often keen to exercise their extensive regulatory powers," writes historian Kate Caplan in "The Administration of Gender Identity in Nazi Germany," a 2011 paper in History Workshop Journal.

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    Hirschfeld examined Katharina, quizzed them on their life and sexual history, and then wrote a report to the police supporting the application. In it, he argued that Katharina’s preference for men’s clothing corresponded to their inner self. If they couldn’t wear them, their well-being and even survival would be jeopardized. In time, they did receive a pass, though for unknown “formal legal reasons,” a further request to adopt a male name was not granted. This,writes Katie Sutton, a scholar of German history and gender studies at Australian National University, in German Studies Review, is the first known example of someone seeking such a pass. By 1912, probably as a result of Hirschfeld's pressure on the police, the pass became a specific permit in the Weimar Republic. (That they remained hand-written suggests that few were issued.)

    Hirschfeld was one of a few doctors in the city who helped people with minority sexual identities. Meanwhile, other people became increasingly aware of the issues they faced. A 1906 German newspaper report, quoted in Robert Beachy’s Gay Berlin: Birthplace of a Modern Identity, tells the story of a person who was biologically female, but only appeared “unsuspicious” if allowed to wear men’s clothing. The paper chastises city officials: “There are men with the faces of women, and women with the faces of men. If necessary, police officials need to be schooled by Dr. Hirschfeld. Such mistrust as in this case should not be based on ignorance.” This was typical of a certain segment of Weimar society, Beachy says. “You can sort of see that there was, at least in some quarters, a liberal tolerance that was clearly visible.”

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    Hirschfeld was stocky and mustachioed, a pacifist, anti-imperialist Jew. He was also likely gay, with two younger lovers—Tao Li Shiu and Karl Giese—though he generally wrote about "homosexuals" at a remove. By the time he saw Katharina, he had been writing about complex sexual identities for well over a decade. After qualifying as a doctor, Hirschfeld began to work specifically on minority sexual identities, and published a selection of books on gender and sexuality, including, in 1910, The Transvestites. In 1919, he started the Institute of Sex Research, a nonprofit foundation that provided services from marriage counseling to STI treatment to early attempts at hormone therapy. Backed by anonymous wealthy benefactors, the Institute treated rich and poor alike, and sought “advancement of scientific research into all aspects of sexual life and of sex education.”

    By medicalizing—arguably pathologizing—people’s sexual identities, Hirschfeld believed he would better be able to make the case that sexual identity is as innate as eye color or biological sex. Perhaps most radically, he made a clear distinction between gender identity and sexual orientation, says Beachy, and had an activist bent that carried through to his work with these transvestite passes. “He thought it was really unfair that they weren’t able to go out in the public the way they felt most comfortable,” Beachy says.

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    Hirschfeld claimed to have made the acquaintance of far more than 10,000 gay men and women, and cross-dressers, in Berlin alone. “He was considered somebody who knew everybody,” Beachy says—at once familiar with the so-called “subculture,” as a gay man himself, and respectable in the eyes of both his patients and the general public. “People would come to him, sometimes they’d send their children to him .… Anybody who thought themselves to be in this category would want to go and talk to an expert, especially if they were middle-class or elite, and had resources.” Often, Hirschfeld was that expert.

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    In 1912, 21-year-old then named Berthe Buttgereit visited Hirschfeld as part of an application for a transvestite pass. Buttgereit was born biologically female, had grown up in Berlin, and attended a coeducational school where, writes the German academic Edwin In het Panhuis, he was described as “energetic and purposeful as a child, and behaved like a boy,” with little interest in the girls’ games. After receiving the pass, Buttgereit was able to live publicly as a man. In 1918, he also received a “transvestite passport,” permitting travel to Cologne where, In het Panhuis writes, “presumably he wanted to build a new life.”

    Seven years later, Buttgereit submitted a request to officially become known as Berthold instead of Berthe. The report stressed that Buttgereit “neither felt nor acted like a woman.” The request was granted. Later in life, he attempted, unsuccessfully, to marry the woman he had by that point lived with for eight years. He noted their long relationship in the supporting report as an indication of “constancy and harmony,” which would lend itself well to a happy marriage. But the mayor, after seeing Buttgereit’s birth certificate, denied the request.

    Buttgereit later attempted to change his birth certificate, but it is not known whether he was successful. What we do know, however, is that he remained in Cologne for the rest of his life. He died around 1984, and apparently had escaped the scrutiny of the Nazis. This, In het Panhuis writes, is “remarkable,” as he would have been known to the police and perhaps even on a particular register as a “transvestite.”

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    Today, Buttgereit would almost certainly be described as transgender rather than transvestite. Throughout the 1920s, Hirschfeld edged closer to the idea, and used the expression “total transvestitism” to describe it. In his 1926 book Sex Education, Hirschfeld published anonymous photographs of Buttgereit in the section titled “Total Transvestitism.” “That’s more or less the equivalent of transgender identity the way we’d think of it today,” Beachy says. People who sought to transition medically were given access, by Hirschfeld, to experimental hormone therapies and even early sex reassignment surgeries.

    Historians don’t know how much protection from harassment, by police or members of the public, “transvestite passes” ultimately gave their holders, Beachy says. “How many people actually received them, what their influence would have been exactly—it’s really hard to say.” But, in the two decades after they were first issued, the cultural climate had shifted, and it became easier and easier for transvestites, or transgender people, to wear whatever clothing they liked.

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    Queer activism, led by Hirschfeld and many of his colleagues, friends, and acquaintances, was having an impact. The Institute “championed the principle that science, rather than religious morality, ought to dictate how state and society responded to sexuality,” writes Laurie Marhoefer, in Sex and the Weimar Republic. By 1929, many forms of female sex work had been legalized. There were scores of gay, lesbian, and “transvestite” publications. And Germany came very close to repealing a law prohibiting sex between two men. There was a selection of transvestite bars in Berlin, including the famous Eldorado, which attracted throngs—straight and queer alike.

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    But in the early 1930s, the rise of Nazism brought it all to an end. In May 1933, students and armed soldiers broke into the Institute and confiscated its library. Less than a week later, at a public book burning in the city center, they destroyed tens of thousands of irreplaceable photographs and scholarly works on human sexuality. Hirschfeld, who was lecturing in the south of France at the time, watched on a newsreel as his life’s work went up in flames. He never returned to Germany.

    By the end of the year, the Eldorado and other gay bars and clubs were closed, queer magazines and newspapers were forced to fold, and police were ordered to supply the Gestapo with lists of all men engaged in homosexual activities. Between 1933 and 1945, some 100,000 German people from these lists were arrested. Lesbianism, however, was not criminalized—the lower status of women meant that it was not generally regarded as a social or political threat. It’s difficult to know how the Nazis responded specifically to “transvestites,” such as Buttgereit, who were not obviously gay men.

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    In 1941, a case landed on the desk of the German Interior Ministry, regarding a person known as Alex S., born Jenny S. in 1898. Alex S. had been living as a man since 1920 and was applying to alter his birth certificate accordingly. Perhaps surprisingly, even though the Ministry didn’t allow the change, it also did not repeal his 1920 name change or say that he would have to return to living as a woman. Indeed, writes Caplan, they “felt it would be an ‘unjustifiable hardship’ and ‘probably quite impossible’ for him to have to start living as a woman again.” The passes might have been obsolete by then, but it’s impossible to say whether their impact was as well.


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    For centuries, the ghost of Marie-Josephte Corriveau has been haunting the cultural consciousness of Quebec, Canada. To many, the legend of “La Corriveau” is a ghost story, of a woman hanged for murder, her corpse put on display as a gruesome warning. But the story of La Corriveau and the gibbet in which she was hanged are based on real historical events, and after over a century away, the actual cage has made its way back home. As a result, Corriveau’s legacy has lately been shifting from folk tale to historical tragedy.

    Marie-Josephte Corriveau was born in 1733, in what was, at the time, a country called New France, which was controlled by the British. “The British forces were completely unorganized,” says Sylvie Toupin, a curator at Quebec’s Musée de la Civilisation, which currently holds Corriveau’s infamous gibbet. “There were many tensions because it was a new government, and the people weren’t happy with what was happening.” Ultimately, Corriveau would become a dire symbol of this frustration and disorganization.

    At the age of 16, she was married to a local farmer. He died in 1760, leaving her alone with three children to care for. However Corriveau quickly found another husband, marrying Louis Étienne Dodier, another farmer from her parish, less than two years after the death of her first husband. But he wasn’t long for the world either.

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    Dodier turned up dead in January of 1763. Corriveau and Dodier’s marriage was the talk of the town, and not in a good way. Her father, Joseph Corriveau, had a number of very public fights with Dodier over property and business dealings, and Marie had petitioned, unsuccessfully, to leave her husband, on the grounds that he was physically abusive.

    So when Dodier was found dead in their barn, initially thought to have been the result of being kicked in the head by a horse, the rumors about town soon turned the focus of the investigation to murder. Dodier’s wounds were reexamined and determined to have been caused by something closer to a pitchfork than horse hooves, and both Joseph and Marie were accused of murdering the man.

    After an initial trial before the military, Joseph was found guilty of Dodier’s murder and Marie was found guilty of being an accomplice. But when Joseph was sentenced to hang for his crimes, he cracked, telling the court that in fact his daughter had committed the murder, and that he hadn't turned her in only because trying to keep her from the gallows. When questioned about this shocking turn of events, Marie finally admitted to killing Dodier with a hatchet.

    Likely embarrassed by the initial wrongful conviction, and possibly influenced by fresh questions about her first husband’s death that were now being whispered about by locals, the British authorities in charge of the province at the time held a speedy, cursory second trial. “It was a military trial, because they were not equipped to hold a civil trial,” says Toupin. “They surpassed their given powers because the king in England did not give the final approval.” They sentenced Marie not only to hang, but for her body to be gruesomely displayed in a metal gibbet as a warning. She was hanged in April of 1763, and her body was placed on public display for about five weeks in nearby Pointe Lévis.

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    “They wanted to give an advertisement to the population with this hanging in the cage,” says Toupin. “It was unusual because this tradition didn’t exist anymore in France, but the British still used it, so it was a new thing for us, and for us an important political symbol. It’s still in our memory, because what they did was unfair.” Corriveau’s extreme sentence, both shocking and cruel, cemented her story in the local history and culture.

    Eventually Corriveau’s body, metal gibbet and all, were taken down and buried in an unmarked grave in a Pointe-Lévis churchyard. And for almost 100 years, that’s where she stayed, her story slowly taking on mythic dimensions.

    Fueled by her sensational, shocking trials and not a small amount of reactionary demonizing of women, the story of La Corriveau evolved, sometimes gaining supernatural flourishes. As the legend grew over the next several decades, her number of dead husbands rose to seven and there were whispers of witchery, or that she was descended from a famous poisoner. Her popular image became a macabre reflection of her final fate, a skeleton in a hanging cage that would appear to terrorize residents. “People tried to understand that [event], so they made stories,” says Toupin. “La Corriveau is still living among us because many people know the story.”

    Then in 1851, the gibbet in which she was buried, her “cage,” was unearthed from the churchyard where it was interred. “She was not in the cemetery. They decided to enlarge [the cemetery] and they found the cage just by luck,” says Toupin. This discovery no doubt injected the folktales with even more life. Versions of La Corriveau began to appear in Canadian literature, and soon she had become something of a cultural institution. But her cage wouldn’t remain in Canada for long.

    Within months of being dug out of the ground, the gibbet was exhibited in Montréal, Lévis, and Québec City, before ending up in the hands of P.T. Barnum, who put it on display as a curiosity in his New York museum, in August of 1851. It had a simple plaque that read, “From Quebec.”

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    From there the cage passed to the Boston Museum in Massachusetts, around 1869. According to dates provided by Toupin, which have only recently been unearthed, the cage then passed to the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts, around 1899, and was put on display at least once around 1931.

    According to Dean Lahikainen, the Carolyn and Peter Lynch Curator of American Decorative Art at the Peabody Essex Museum, the modern incarnation of the Essex Institute, it’s unclear precisely how long the Institute had the cage on display, but it stayed in their collection for over a century.

    In the early 2010s, members of the Lévis historical society rediscovered it at the Peabody Essex Museum, after it had been all but forgotten for most of the 20th century. Working with the museum, Corriveau’s cage was repatriated to Lévis for a special exhibition in 2013. According to Lahikainen, the directors and trustees at the Peabody Essex Museum then donated it to Musée de la Civilisation in Quebec, where it remains to this day.

    The legend of La Corriveau is still a well known folk tale in Quebec, and versions of her story have been turned into a number of books, operas, and more. But thanks to the return of the gibbet in which she met her final fate, the legends and stories are hardening into cold history. In fact Corriveau’s gibbet is still being tested and studied to see if they might even be able to pull DNA from it. As Toupin says, “Now it’s real, it’s there, it’s scientific.”


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    With approximately 5.2 million photographs dating from the 19th century on, the National Library of Ireland’s Photographic Archive is thought of as a sort of national family album. But time dulls historical memory, and a lot of information about the people captured in those images has been forgotten.

    So back in 2011, the library (NLI) joined Flickr Commons, a part of the online photo-sharing community that encourages public photo collections to post their archives. The library then asked users to help track down the stories behind the faces and places in its collection.

    It worked. Over the past six years, some 34,000 “photo detectives,” from library staff to local amateur historians to members of the diaspora around the world, helped uncover details for the NLI’s photo collection, in the form of more than 40,000 comments.

    The NLI has turned the results of the project into an exhibition, Photo Detectives, at the National Photographic Archive in Temple Bar, Dublin, which runs through September 2018.

    Atlas Obscura has a selection of the show’s images, which date from 1871 to 1970—a visual account of a century of change.


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    18 Abercorn Road (c. 1970)

    Former home of writer Sean O’Casey

    For a long time, this image of a group of kids was simply marked, “Unidentified Photograph from the Wiltshire Photographic Collection.” But when photo detective Sharon Corbet managed to identify the building in the picture—18 Abercorn Road, in East Wall, a neighborhood in northern Dublin—some interesting facts started to emerge.

    Corbet found that the building had once been the home of Irish writer and playwright Sean O’Casey, renowned for his realistic portraits of life in Dublin’s slums during the country’s civil war and the 1916 revolution against British rule. The area now hosts a community center in his name. Corbet then reached out to councilwoman Maureen O’Sullivan, a native of East Wall, to help identify all of the kids. They are, top row, left to right, Catherine Byrne, Helen Boyle, Rose Byrne, Elaine Kane, Imelda Redmond, and Ann Byrne. The younger boys are the Ryan twins.


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    Band of the Irish Guards drummer, with regimental mascot (1917)

    Leitrim Boy

    The Irish wolfhound is beloved part of Irish culture, and photo detectives helped identify this beautiful canine through small details in this portrait. The building in the background was quickly identified as the “Barracks," a military installation in Waterford, while the metal badge on the boy's sleeve revealed he was a drummer in the Band of the Irish Guards. It is thought that the picture was taken when the band was visiting the Barracks to recruit soldiers for World War I. At the time, it was customary for noble families to offer the Irish Guards a wolfhound as a mascot. Thanks to a comment offered by Niall McAuley, it was found that, back in 1917, the official mascot was named Leitrim Boy, and was born in November 1907. The identity of Leitrim Boy's human companion remains, for now, a mystery.


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    E.F. Fraser (1904)

    Second Lieutenant Edward Francis Frazer

    This photo was catalogued with a name, “E.F. Fraser,” but the facts of the young soldier’s life remained elusive. The photo detectives solved this problem by suggesting an alternate spelling for his name: Frazer. This led to the military career of one Edward Francis Frazer, and the online community was able to track his life, from his birth in China to his days in the army. The helmet on the table next to him bears the crest of the Royal Field Artillery, with which Second Lieutenant Frazer served in Nigeria during World War I. But there is more. Frazer was also the uncle of Irish actress Maureen O’Sullivan, famous for playing Jane in Tarzan films from the 1930s and 1940s—which also makes him great-uncle of actress Mia Farrow.


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    A.J. Mortimer (1916)

    2 Bridge Street, Waterford

    Photo detective Niall McAuley, who helped identify Leitrim Boy, also uncovered the location of this grocery store through a few letters reflected in its window. The reflection had been scratched out, but McAuley could still make out "Fam … otel." In other images from the same group, the Poole Collection—featuring portraits of people from Waterford, the country’s oldest city—he spotted Breen’s Family Hotel. And this led him to the exact address of the shop across the way: 2 Bridge Street. Another online detective, Paul O'Farrell, helped identify the girl: Mary Mortimer, daughter of the owner. She later married Tommy Corcoran and took over running the shop when her father passed away.


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    The Rileys (1915)

    Survivors of the sinking of Lusitania

    The caption had only a family name, “The Rileys,” but nothing of their extraordinary story. Originally from Great Horton, West Yorkshire, England, Annie and Edward Riley and their twins, Sutcliffe and Ethel, migrated to Massachusetts in the early 1900s. They were making a return visit to Europe—aboard RMS Lusitania, the British ocean liner torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat in 1915, a factor in the United States’ eventual entry into World War I. More than 128 American citizens died in the incident, with the Rileys among the few lucky survivors.


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    Tucked away in the folds of the Himalayas, Bhutan generally manages to stay under the radar. In the larger world, knowledge about this small Buddhist kingdom-turned-democracy is limited. Bhutan may be best known for its unique Gross National Happiness metric, which is used to measure the welfare of its citizens in lieu of traditional economic measures.

    For foreigners who visit, the country’s mountain landscapes prove memorable. But another unique aspect of Bhutan stands out: the Bhutanese’s extravagant love of chili peppers.

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    Bhutan’s summer markets are a feast for the senses. Young women in colorful kira dresses sell Buddhist masks, Tibetan prayer bowls, and good luck charms. Older women hawk bundles of hard chhurpi cheese, while housewives sift through dozens of varieties of red rice. And at every stall, there are huge piles of green and red chili peppers, with the occasional yellow pepper peeping through.

    This abundance of chili peppers isn’t just found at markets. Shops in Bhutan feature heaps of spicy peppers, and along Bhutan’s hilly roads, you’ll see red chilies laid out to dry on rooftops like scarlet carpets or hung out on balconies like misshapen curtains. And in the valleys of rural Bhutan, during festivals and prayer rituals, the pungent odor of burning chilies floats in the air, along with the sounds of prayer bells and hypnotic chants.

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    The result is a food culture defined by chili peppers, which are used more like a vegetable than a spice or condiment. Given Bhutan’s proximity to India and China, influences from both countries’ cuisines (especially Tibetan) are strong. Yet Bhutan’s national dish is unique: ema datshi, a stew of equal parts chili peppers and soft cheese, along with onions and tomatoes. Ema datshi is present at every main meal of the day, with the chili peppers—usually green and sliced lengthwise—carrying a spice hit that even the cheese cannot soften.

    Ema datshi is the star of Bhutanese cuisine, and while many variations feature potatoes (kewa datshi), beans (semchung datshi), or mushroom (shamu datshi), there is always a generous sprinkling of chilies. Chef Sonam Tshering, culinary instructor at the Royal Institute for Tourism and Hospitality, says that all Bhutanese curries contain chilies in copious quantities. Another dish easily found in Bhutanese homes is ezay, a coarse chili dip eaten at breakfast.

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    Culinary experts say that the most likely reason for chili peppers’ predominance in the Bhutanese diet is the sensation of heat they provide during cold winters. Because when people say that spicy food is painful, they’re being accurate. Chili peppers trick our pain fibers to react the same way they do to extreme temperatures, leading to a warm feeling that is often uncomfortable.

    For this reason, humans are the only mammals to eat—and actually enjoy—the pleasure-pain of chili peppers. As one science reporter put it, it takes “a complicated brain and weird self-awareness to enjoy something that is inherently not enjoyable,” and researchers havesuggested that a love for spicy foods is similar to thrill-seeking behavior that pushes people onto roller coasters and into high-stakes gambling.

    Spicy food causes pain. But for anyone with Bhutanese levels of spice tolerance, after the initial shock of watery eyes and burning subsides, a feeling of warmth and well-being remains.

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    This may seem odd, since nearby tropical countries like India use peppers so much in their cuisine. But the effects of food on temperature are contradictory. Ice cream provides a pleasant coldness on summer days, but digesting all that fat, according to food scientist Barry Swanson, actually warms you up. Spicy food makes the Bhutanese feel warm, but since it causes sweating, it also cools people down in India’s heat.

    It’s telling that even in Bhutan, no one takes naturally to eating copious chili peppers. Jose Thachil, Executive Chef at the Taj Tashi hotel in Thimphu, says that eating chili peppers starts from a very young age. Bhutanese parents essentially train children to tolerate spice by giving them small (and then increasingly large) portions with their food.

    There is an interesting parallel to this in the folklore of neighboring India: the vishkanya (literally translated as “poison girl”). Ancient texts about statecraft mention young girls who are trained to be assassins. From a very small age, they are brought up on a steady and careful diet of snake venom and antidote that makes them immune, but their victims vulnerable.

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    Cuisine apart, chilies also find a place in larger Bhutanese culture, primarily during prayer rituals. Many Bhutanese consider chilies to have supernatural powers, and burn them to keep away evil spirits. “My grandparents burned chilies whenever someone fell sick at home," reminisces chef Tshering, "because they say that when we burn chilies, the evil spirits will suffer and stay away from the family."

    Chef Thachil also recounts a belief about Ara, the popular home-brewed rice or maize liquor of Bhutan: Locals tend to drop several chilies into their bottle of Ara, not to impart any special flavor, but for good luck and to ward off evil alcohol spirits.

    Despite all this love, chili peppers are native to Bhutan, or even the Asian continent. They were originally cultivated in South America, and brought to India by Portuguese explorers in the early 16th century—along with the potato and tomato.

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    But now chilies are so deeply entrenched in Bhutanese cuisine and culture that they’re beloved for far more than their original, warming appeal. “It has just been our tradition from a long time,” says Chef Tshering. “We now eat chilies even during our summers.”

    In my own encounter with ema datshi, I remember my heart leaping at the promise of spiciness and flavor. One of the things I sorely miss when I travel out of India is heat in my food. But ema datshi was too hot—even for my palate shaped by years of fiery mango pickles and pungent stews.

    Seeking out super spicy foods and entering hot pepper eating contests has become part of modern food culture. But the Bhutanese eat ema datshi as if it were peanut butter. Indeed, my guide laughed gently as he reminded me that his ten-year-old regularly tucked into it without a problem.