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The AMAZING HISTORY and HIDDEN WONDER all around us. Some other neat stuff, too.
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    Drink scotch, drink rye, drink bourbon, drink too much but barely enough, drink a barrel of it, drink it hot, cold, with a cigarette—but however you drink your whiskey (whisky), drink it with a splash of water. Or so says science.

    Rather than relying on highly scientific and perfectly enjoyable taste tests, researchers at Linnaeus University in Sweden carried out computer simulations of water and alcohol to better understand the movement of organic compounds that make whiskey taste like, well, whiskey. That flavor comes from a molecule called guaiacol, which contributes to common "tasting notes" for the spirit—smoke, peat, spice. Chemically, it resembles other aroma compounds, such as vanillin (tastes like vanilla) or limonene (tastes like lemon). You get more of it in Scottish whiskies than their American or Irish counterparts, researchers said.

    The water and ethanol in any spirit don't mix perfectly, so drinks have what are technically known as "ethanol clusters," which can trap aromatic compounds such as guaiacol and, in turn, prevent drinks from tasting as they should. A little extra water in the glass can free guaiacol from its depths, so it can skate around the surface of the drink and enhance both the smell and the taste (in the range of about 40 to 45 percent alcohol after dilution). At 27 percent overall alcohol—even more water!—it's even freer to "aerosolize" and get up in your nose as you sip.

    This highly important research began (more or less) over a barrel. Scientist Ran Friedman was inspired to carry out these trials after a visit to Scotland, where he was struck by the locals' dedication to adding a few drops to a wee dram, no matter how high-end it was. But his coauthor Björn Karlssen is reluctant to tell drinkers what to do. Preferences are necessarily personal, he told NPR, and whiskey is "among the most complicated product there is, in terms of chemical composition." It sounds like further tests are necessary. Pull up a stool and let's get to the bottom of this.


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    If you're ever roaming around Baja California, there's a pretty good chance you're never going to see one of the most common reptiles in the region. But if you do happen to come across a Mexican mole lizard, you certainly won't forget its long, bright pink body and its two tiny little legs.

    The Mexican mole lizard, as this video from bioGraphic explains, are one of just three species of bipes, lizards that have just two legs and a wormlike body. They're found only in Mexico, and the mole lizard lives only on the Baja California peninsula. The species is usually subterranean, so getting to see one squirm around on rocks and through sand like this is unusual. Sara Ruane, a biologist at Rutgers University, explains that researchers use a bucket trap to catch them.

    Scientists don't know all that much about the mole lizard. They spend so much time underground, crawling and slithering through sand and soil, that they make challenging subjects of study. Researchers do know that they eat insects and that, in some places, they're the most abundant squamate (scaled reptiles such as snakes and lizards) around. Because they're so common, and eat so many bugs, they're important parts of their ecosystem.


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    Marine biologist Kate Mansfield recently shared images of a small loggerhead turtle to Twitter, and it’s undeniably cute, even if it is a mutant.

    The turtle was discovered by an intern with the University of Central Florida Marine Turtle Research Group while they were performing a nest inventory, taking stock of how many of the turtles had hatched.

    The group released the turtle back into the wild after the researchers took some pictures of it, though Mansfield said that its life expectancy probably wasn't great.

    "Others I've seen haven't made it out of the nest or lasted long," she tweeted. "It depends on what it looks like internally," meaning how well its internal organs are functioning.

    Still, for today at least, the cute mutant got its moment in the sun.


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    Solar eclipse events are transient by their very nature, so permanent monuments to such celestial events are scarce. But in the African country of Uganda, there are two that honor important eclipses from the area’s past, one recent and one hundreds of years old.

    Back in 2013, a total solar eclipse passed over Uganda, and the small town of Pakwatch in the northwest of the country was identified as the best place to see it, possibly in the entire world. Specifically, Pakwatch's Owiny Primary School was singled out as a prime viewing location.

    As hundreds of eclipse-chasers and onlookers prepared to head to the area for the eclipse, the Minister of Tourism's office announced that it would erect a monument to the event at the school. The monument was constructed amid a number of other infrastructure fixes, including improvements to some of the local roads and renovations to water stations and buildings.

    As outlined in a diagram of the monument shared on Ugandan news outlet The Daily Monitor, the attraction is shaped like a squat stone pyramid, topped with a metal eclipse medallion on top.

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    On November 3, 2013, the eclipse passed over the assembled onlookers at the school, a crowd that included Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. In the photo above, spectators can be seen surrounding the monument while awaiting the eclipse.

    The 2013 eclipse was a momentary economic boon to the area, but the monument is its more lasting legacy. However it is not the only eclipse monument in the country. Almost 300 miles south, and a bit farther west, Uganda has a second, more grandiose monument that, while built more recently, honors an eclipse much farther in the past.

    Located in the Biharwe neighborhood in the town of Mbarara, the 1520 Eclipse Monument was erected in 2014 near the Igongo Cultural Center & Country Hotel. The Igongo Centre, which was also refurbished in an effort to attract tourism to the area, features historical and cultural displays, of which the eclipse monument is the most grand.

    The monument crowns a hill near the hotel, and has a sort of afro-futurist vibe. The piece was designed by an art student who incorporated meaning into every facet of the monument. The central feature is an eclipsed orb held in a three-legged stand meant to symbolize a trio of Ugandan kingdoms (Bunyoro, Buganda, and Nkore). The surface of the monument is also covered in symbols such as drums and spears, as well as Egyptian writing.

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    The eclipse event honored by the monument is thought to have occurred in the year 1520, and factors into the area’s cultural history. According to local folktale, hundreds of years ago, in a time when a number of small kingdoms were at war with each other, King Olimi I was carrying his spoils over Biharwe Hill, when a strange thing happened. The skies darkened unnaturally, which the king took as a sign that the spirits of those they had killed in the war had returned to exact their revenge. King Olimi and his troops abandoned their loot, including cattle, food, and concubines there on the hilltop, fleeing the unnatural shadow. The locals were able to collect the discarded spoils, calling their haul “cattle from heaven.”

    While the story may or may not be entirely true, the eclipse itself certainly seems to have occurred. The monument is a fitting mix of real-world installation and fantastical design.

    Two monuments might not seem like that many, but given how few monuments to the world’s eclipses exist, Uganda might have accidentally become the eclipse monument capital of the world.


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    In the late 1800s, seven sisters living near Niagara Falls in upstate New York used their unusual hairdos to become famous and tour the world. They appeared at dime museums, in P.T. Barnum’s circus sideshows, and even at world’s fairs.

    A handbill for one of their appearances called the sisters—Sarah, Victoria, Isabella, Grace, Naomi, Dora, and Mary—the “7 Wonders of the world! 7 Accomplished musicians! 7 Refined and Educated Ladies! … 7 Ladies with 49 feet of hair! 7 feet of hair each!” Onstage, the Seven Sutherland Sisters showed off their musical talents. But what the audience really waited for was their big reveal: when all seven loosened their cascades of dark hair that swooshed down, brushing the floor.

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    Long, flowing hair on women was considered an important marker of femininity in England and the United States during the Victorian era. Billowing manes figured prominently in the art of the era—in the poems of Yeats and paintings by artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti—imbued with enchanting powers. In Rossetti’s Lady Lilith painting, “the grand woman achieved her transcendent vitality partly through her magic hair … her gleaming tresses both expressed her mythic power and were its source,” according to Elizabeth Gitter’s The Power of Women's Hair in Victorian Imagination. An article in the late 1800s-era Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine states that a woman’s hair should be naturally abundant and luxuriant—but, above all, it should be long: “It is equally hurtful to the health of females, as it is contrary to their beauty to wear their hair cut a la Brutus, Titus, or Caracalla.”

    Long, untrammeled hair could also carry a whiff of the disreputable. When Victorian girls reached a certain age (usually 18), they were expected to put their hair up and let down their hems, signifying that they were now of marriageable age. A respectable woman would only let her hair down, as it were, in private. This sex appeal may have accounted for the Sutherlands’ popularity in sideshows and dime museums, such as P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. The notorious impresario billed them as “the seven most pleasing wonders of the world.”

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    The Sutherland girls, the eldest born in 1846 and the youngest around 1864, grew up on the family turkey farm in upstate New York, near the Erie Canal, Buffalo, and Niagara Falls. Their father Fletcher Sutherland was a sometime preacher who left the farmwork to his wife and daughters. According to Arch Merrill’s Shadows on the Wall: Tales of New York State, the girls’ mother Mary would slather their hair with a stinky ointment that helped it grow…and grow. When they were tending turkeys, no one cared about the stench, but it got them teased at school. Nevertheless, the concoction was effective, judging by the sisters’ Rapunzel manes.

    The young women were skilled musicians. Naomi sang in a surprising and beautiful bass, and, by her teens, Sarah was a well-loved local music teacher. Performing at churches, community theaters, and fairs, they were known as the “Sutherland Concert of Seven Sisters, and One Brother,” according to Brandon M. Stickney, author of a biography of the sisters. (Brother Charles was born in 1854 but didn’t continue as a singer.) The sisters toured in New York City and throughout the South, appearing at Atlanta’s International Cotton Exposition and World’s Fair in 1881. In 1883 they toured with the W.W. Cole Circus in Mexico. By 1884 the group was touring with Barnum.

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    The Sutherland sisters (“7 Refined and Educated Ladies!”) were listed on handbills alongside “The Most Costly Curiosities! Rare beautiful and the most eccentric freaks! Astounding Oddities!” The sisters emphasized their respectability by singing hymns and parlor songs such as “Woodman, Spare That Tree!” and “Come Into the Garden, Maud.” When on tour with the Forepaugh and Sells Bros. Circus in 1883, they were said to have performed before Queen Victoria. But they still belonged to the sideshow, where acts were classified as born freaks (with congenital abnormalities such as missing limbs or gigantism), made ones (tattooed ladies, people with extremely long hair or beards), and novelties (sword-swallowers, fire-eaters, snake-charmers).

    In the last quarter of the 19th century and first quarter of the 20th, hundreds of so-called freak shows toured America. “Freak” was a common term, although a group of sideshow employees banded together at the turn of the century to demand that their managers show them the courtesy of exchanging the word “freaks” for “prodigies,” according to a 1907 article in The New York Times. Many performers owed their fame in some way to their hair. Bearded ladies were popular, as was the hirsute Alice Doherty, known as the Minnesota Woolly Girl, and a Russian teen, Fedor Jeftichew, known as Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy for the luxurious pelt of hair that grew up his forehead, merged with his hairline, and continued around to form a handsome beard and mustache.

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    In the early 1880s, Fletcher realized that the Sutherlands’ hair, more than their musical talent, was the big draw. He and their manager, a showman named Harry Bailey, decided to capitalize on the public obsession with abundant hair. One problem: mother Mary Sutherland was dead and no one remembered the recipe for the original hair grower.

    It was the era of patent medicines, and the men came up with a tonic. The company got its first trademark in 1883. “The Lucky Number 7 Seven Sutherland Sisters Hair Grower” cost 60 cents for four ounces, or the equivalent to about $15 nowadays. (The average weekly wage for a railroad engineer that year [1881] was just under $4). It was also sometimes known as “Hair Fertilizer.” Ingredients included borax, salt, quinine, bay rum, and cantharides, an irritating powder made from an aphrodisiac beetle known as a Spanish Fly. “It’s the Hair—not the Hat That Makes a Woman Attractive,” read one ad for the Grower and Scalp Cleaner. A few years after that, a Sutherland Sisters comb and eight shades of “Hair Colorator” followed.

    In its first year, the Seven Sutherland Sisters Corporation made $90,000 in sales (about $2.25 million today), according to Douglas Farley of the Erie Canal Discovery Center. He writes that the company eventually had 28,000 dealers and offices in New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Toronto, and Havana. By 1890, the sisters had sold over $3 million dollars’ worth of the Hair Grower (some 2.5 million bottles). At the height of their fame, a judge temporarily ordered the sisters to refrain from posing in the window of their Manhattan store because the ensuing crowds were a public disturbance.

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    The sisters hired long-haired women to demonstrate their products in drugstores and shops around the country. (Occasionally, they had to fill in for Naomi, who had several children before dying young of cancer, and Mary, who had her difficult spells.)

    Their fortunes burgeoning, the sisters shifted to touring for the sake of their business rather than as part of a circus. In 1893, they built an elaborate mansion on the site of their former turkey farm. It had bedrooms for each sister, a marble lavatory with hot and cold running water, a turret and cupola, imported fine furniture, massive chandeliers, black walnut woodwork, and hardwood floors, according to Farley.

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    The sisters’ behavior reportedly became increasingly eccentric. Mary’s room locked from the outside, with a slot for food trays. A young man was married to Isabella, but seemed awfully close to Dora (they all cohabitated for a while). The women were said to have closets full of furs and beautiful dresses, but at home they wore their hair piled up under white-toweling caps. They rode their bikes around the yard in their bathing costumes. The sisters loved their menagerie of pets. The animals were fed the finest steak and chicken and wore handmade sweaters and slept on silk beds. Dora had a Mexican hairless dog named Topsy. When a pet died, the sisters put obituaries in the local paper and had elaborate leave-takings. Topsy’s read: “Deceased Canine Will Have First Class Funeral.”

    Had they known about a certain fad that would soon be sweeping the country, they might have reined in their spending. In the 1920s, modern young women, aka flappers, shed their corsets and long skirts to symbolize freedom from stodgy respectability. They also began chopping off their long hair—the era of the bob began.


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  • 08/17/17--14:15: Where Statues Go to Retire
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    The ongoing controversy over Confederate statues, which has seen these monuments removed from public spaces in more than a dozen locations in the past couple years, is the renewal of a historical tradition that has been going on for as long as humans have erected such monuments: the symbolic removal and recontextualization of artifacts from the past that are no longer relevant or welcome.

    Putting aside antiquity, in the recent past, this has included the removal of statues of a seemingly endless march of former leaders, all over the world: Alberto Stroessner, Josef Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, Muammar al-Qaddafi, Chiang Kei-shek, Saparmurat Niyazov, Hafez al-Assad, Hosni Mubarak, Enver Hoxha, Saddam Hussein, and more. Some of these statues are destroyed—symbolically, even ritually—but others are relocated, as is the case with most Confederate statues today.

    Sometimes statues are collected in one place, where the immortalized fallen crowd together in awkward silence, historical repositories of different eras. Take the "Garden of the Generalissimos" in Cihu, Taiwan, where scores of Chiang Kai-shek statues sit together, regarding one another. The statues are some of the thousands on the island—a controversial legacy of the late leader of the Republic of China (not to be confused with the modern mainland People's Republic of China).

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    In Budapest, Hungary, leaders in 1993 built a similar shrine for statues from the country's communist past. Memento Park, about 20 minutes south of the city's center, contains 40 statues from the time when the country was a satellite state of the Soviet Union. Its most famous statue might be one that doesn't even really exist anymore—the boots of Josef Stalin, all that remain of a 25-foot-tall monument.

    In Lithuania, there is Grūtas Park, which contains a number of similar communist artifacts, while Moscow has Fallen Monument Park, which hosts relocated busts and statues of Lenin and Stalin, among others.

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    There is also the curious case of Harlan Crow, a Dallas real-estate investor who has amassed a collection of more than a dozen statues of authoritarian leaders—most imported from Europe—including depictions of Yugoslavian dictator Josip Broz Tito and Walter Ulbricht, the East German leader who oversaw the construction of the Berlin Wall. Crow told The New York Times in 2003 that he was inspired to collect the statues after watching statues of British colonial leader Cecil Rhodes being taken down in what is now Zimbabwe. ''It's an image that has persisted with me for many years,'' he said. ''I thought something was being lost from history if a statue of that time was not salvaged."

    Indeed, today, many agree with Crow's perspective, and believe that the removed Confederate statues should not be destroyed, but preserved as historical artifacts. So far, nearly every state and local government that has removed them has agreed as well—placing them either in private spaces, cemeteries, or, in some cases, storage.

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    “It is vital that we keep these things and use them as symbols for our memory,” Matthew Logan, the executive director of the Montgomery County Historical Society in Maryland, told Newsweek earlier this month. He argued that the teaching of history "should happen in museums, not public spaces, so that it’s understood that you’re looking at a historical relic as opposed to a symbol of current values.”

    (Logan's society had offered to take in a statue of a Confederate soldier that was located in public space in Rockville, Maryland, before it was moved in July to private property.)

    Authorities elsewhere have come to the similar conclusions, with New Orleans putting four monuments in storage while they decide on permanent homes for them. In Gainesville, Florida, a Confederate monument was moved to a private cemetery, while officials at the University of Texas moved a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from outdoor grounds to a history center on campus. (The New York Times has a full list of removals and planned removals here.)

    These statues, it should be noted, haven't been erased. Just like those in Taiwan or Hungary, they are being reconsidered, immortal still, but subject to a new time.


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    There are plenty of well-known destinations for Beatles fans. Countless British Invasion enthusiasts have no doubt ended their pilgrimages on Abbey Road (hopefully the right one), or at Andrew Edwards’ relatively new statues at the Pier Head in Liverpool.

    New Yorkers can readily visit the Strawberry Fields Memorial across from the building where John Lennon was killed. And those who've found themselves shopping for a sleeping bag or a tent in Washington, D.C., may have taken a moment to appreciate the coliseum where the Beatles played their first U.S. concert―now an REI.

    But some monuments to Beatlemania are featured in places one might not expect to find them. From the bronze statues of Paul, George, Ringo, and John in Kazakhstan to a wall in Prague dedicated to their legacy, the British Invasion, which gained momentum after the group’s performance on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, made its way to places that aren’t often associated with rock 'n' roll history.

    If you’ve already seen the Battersea Power Station, which makes an appearance in Help!, or Penny Lane, which still boasts the “shelter in the middle of a roundabout” and the shop where the barber showed photographs “of every head he’s had the pleasure to have known,” maybe a John Lennon statue commissioned by Fidel Castro can satisfy your desire for visiting Fab Four historical markers off the Beatle path.

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    Beatles Statue of Almaty

    Almaty, Kazakhstan

    This youthful, cartoonish representation of the worldwide musical sensation was created in 2007 by the artist Eduard Kazaryan as an homage to the popularity and universal appeal of the Beatles, and as another piece of artistic flair to go along with the existing attractions in Kazakhstan’s largest city.

    The statue stands near the Almaty Tower, which it seems is starting to be a rallying point for artists and tourists alike due to its attractive scenic vistas.

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    Beatles Park

    Walnut Ridge, Arkansas

    In September 1964, the Beatles landed at the Walnut Ridge airport. The plan was for them to be secretly transported to a nearby vacation spot, and then return to the airport two days later. But fans were tipped off, and nearly the entire town turned up to catch a glimpse.

    The quick stopover in Walnut Ridge marked the only place that the band stepped foot in Arkansas throughout their entire run, making what should have been a quick and easy layover into a monumental event for the town's residents, who to this day pass on stories of their encounters with John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

    In remembrance of the fateful day, Walnut Ridge created “Beatles Park,” a public area complete with cutouts, sculptures, and murals of the four band members and various other objects symbolic of the band, such as a yellow submarine and a piano painted with the word “Imagine.” Every September the town hosts the Beatles at the Ridge Music Festival.

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    David Adickes Beatles Statues

    Houston, Texas

    The 36-foot tall Beatles statues were once kept at David Adickes’ studio, among his 43 giant busts of U.S. presidents, but they’ve since been moved to a temporary location nearby. The concrete behemoths are currently standing in the backyard of Houston’s 8th Wonder Brewery (they’re set to remain for at least a year). And they’re for sale; if anyone has an extra $350,000―and enough room for them―the Fab Four is theirs to keep.

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    Rock N Roll McDonald's

    Chicago, Illinois

    The Rock N Roll McDonald's in Chicago features a museum dedicated to the genre’s history. Plaster statues of the Fab Four are frozen in a constant state of walking by the window for customers to admire. One can’t help but wonder what vegetarian Paul McCartney thinks of it; a few years ago, when a Liverpool McDonald’s hung photographs of the Beatles on its walls, McCartney’s spokesman Geoff Baker responded" “What sort of morons do McDonald's think Beatles fans are? It’s ridiculous and insulting to use images to peddle hamburgers.”

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    John Lennon Statue

    Havana, Cuba

    It’s no surprise that the music of the Beatles was banned from Communist Cuba in the 1960s and '70s. Cuban authorities considered the music “ideological diversionism,” and a decadent American influence during a time of Revolution.

    But 20 years after John Lennon’s death, Castro made a complete 180. No longer was his music banned, but instead Lennon was to be celebrated as a hero. Castro unveiled a shiny new bronze statue of Lennon in the year 2000, at the then-new John Lennon Park, and spoke of a feeling of kinship to the artist: “I share his dreams completely. I too am a dreamer who has seen his dreams turn into reality.” Lennon was also harassed by the U.S. government in the later years of his life, and Cuba considers him both a rebel and a victim—a kindred spirit to Cuba’s relationship with the U.S.

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    Lennon Wall

    Prague, Czechia

    Tucked away into a nondescript street far from the touristy hustle and bustle that pervades much of Prague, the Lennon Wall is covered with Lennon-inspired graffiti and Beatles song lyrics.

    An image of John Lennon was first painted on the wall opposite the French Embassy after his murder in December 1980. Soon it became a prime site for political and Beatles-inspired graffiti and a sounding board for disgruntled youth. Several attempts were made by the police to whitewash the wall, but in vain. Artists continued to paint on the wall, refusing to be pinned down. After so many attempts to keep the wall clean, the Knights of Malta, who own the wall, finally gave in and it now stands in all its graffitied glory.

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    Beatles Monument

    Yekaterinburg, Russia

    This monument to the Beatles in central Russia may seem out of place, but considering their popularity in the underground music scene of the USSR, and their cultural impact, the monument, comprised of a wall sculpture and accompanying mural, seems right where it should be.

    The Beatles’ place in Soviet hearts and musical souls was hard won. If USSR teenagers couldn’t buy Beatles jackets or boots, they’d make their own by refashioning the bulky coats and chunky boots they had. When they couldn’t get their hands on actual albums or 45s, they’d bootleg their own versions by scratching the grooves into discarded X-ray plates, creating what became known as “bone music.” It could be risky to exchange Western music in the USSR, but for those who loved and revered the lads from Liverpool, it was worth the risk.


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    John Jerit may be one of the very few people in America you could describe as “eclipse rich.” Jerit’s business, American Paper Optics—one of the major American manufacturers of NASA-approved eclipse glasses—booms every time the sun’s disk is covered by the moon.

    Jerit also happens to be one of the major American collectors of visionary folk art. His sprawling collection of work by “outsider” artists is, in a literal sense, purchased with the help of celestial movements. His collection includes work by hermetic writer and illustrator Henry Darger, the Baptist minister Howard Finster, and the schizophrenic folk artist Martín Ramírez. Jerit began collecting visionary art in the early 2001, after coming across the scholarship of folk art historian Carol Crown, who has written extensively on Southern vernacular art.

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    In recent years, both Jerit’s art collection and his eclipse glasses business have grown. This summer, American Paper Optics has received upwards of 13,000 orders of eclipse glasses daily, doing $2.7 million of business in a single day. Some of the glasses are themed (for instance, there’s a “Bill Nye The Science Guy” edition, as well as a Moonpie-themed collector's set) but most are a simple, utilitarian design. The company’s business surged after news broke that other retailers sold unsafe eclipse glasses, and Amazon issued a massive recall.

    “It’s crazy. It’s absolutely gone nuts,” says Jerit, whose business-like tone contains notes of a showman’s enthusiasm. “We’re going to sell 40 million plus glasses. My original goal was 100 million, but I didn’t get the big corporate sponsors—Coke, Pepsi, Intel. Ecommerce and retail have been excellent, and I’ve been blown away by the website and by Amazon resellers.”

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    Jerit began manufacturing the eclipse glasses in the early 1990s after being contacted by an astronomer named Roger Tuthill, who had developed a special solar-viewing material and sought a glasses manufacturer. The first eclipse for which he made glasses was the 1991 total eclipse visible from Mexico. (Today, the company uses a paper manufactured by Thousand Oaks Optical, rather than Tuthill’s original invention.) Since then, business has been as constant—or, rather, as mercurial—as the moon.

    American Paper Optics is located in a nondescript building in the Memphis suburb of Bartlett, Tennessee. The walls of the office are lined with classic posters, limited-edition paper glasses, and spare selections from Jerit’s folk art collection. Jerit keeps the rest of the art in his modern house on the banks of the Mississippi River. Intricate works by the French Art Brut painter Augustin Lesage hang near works on paper by Italian veteran-turned-painter Carlos Zinelli. Folk sculpture—cartoonishly whittled versions of American presidents, disembodied wooden busts—occupies every spare nook. A massive work by Ramírez is currently on loan to the Institute for Contemporary Art Los Angeles, who will include it as a part of an exhibition that opens in September.

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    The jewel of Jerit’s collection is a large work by Henry Darger, a reclusive hospital custodian who drew narrative scrolls and authored a 15,145-page book called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. In the work, stiffly drawn children flail while lightning strikes. “It’s a pretty tame Darger,” says Jerit.

    Jerit hopes to acquire more of what he dubs “A+” works of visionary art. But what he can do with his collection depends, at least in part, on the demand for glasses. When not selling eclipse glasses, Jerit sells 3D paper glasses. The market for 3D paper glasses has shrunk since around 2011, when plastic glasses became the standard in movie theaters (“2007-2011 I was 24/7 making glasses from the movie industry,” says Jerit). But there’s still demand for 3D paper glasses for use in printed promotional materials and books.

    Only 94 percent of the August solar eclipse will be visible from Jerit’s home in Memphis, so he plans to travel to Nashville or Carbondale, Illinois, depending on traffic. He will watch the eclipse wearing two different pairs of his own glasses—a standard-issue paper pair and a specially made plastic pair. Says Jerit, “I’ll probably switch them out. Gotta try the product!”


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    Tens of millions of years ago, back when Australia cradled a salty inland sea, tentacled creatures called ammonites swam through it, pumping air in and out of their spiral shells and hunting for plankton at the water's surface.

    These days, the sea is bone dry, and the ammonites long gone. But these prehistoric mollusks are finally getting their due: as the Townsville Bulletin reports, a couple of guys just drew a very, very large one in the dirt where the creatures' home used to be.

    The massive ammonite has been etched into Marathon Station, a flat plain in Queensland that was once a World War II airfield. It was mapped out by mathematician David Kennedy, and dug up by the station's owner, Rob Ievers, with a firefighting plough—Kennedy put guiding pegs in the ground, and Ievers wove the machine as closely as he could around them. It's approximately one million square feet.

    Viewed from above, the creature's shell dwarfs the streambeds that surround it. Its tentacles stretch towards the horizon. "It will be a big surprise" for pilots flying over, Ievers told the Bulletin.

    Every day, we track down a fleeting wonder—something amazing that’s only happening right now. Have a tip for us? Tell us about it! Send your temporary miracles to cara@atlasobscura.com.


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    Jillian Kelly is a California gold miner. (Yes, they still exist, remarkably!) But her most recent discovery was a shiny, valuable rock of a different sort—a 1.5 carat diamond.

    Kelly had a dig site in Foresthill, California, where she searches for gold, by excavating and breaking down pieces of ancient riverbed, which are then sluiced for gold. Earlier in August she turned up a raw diamond: There, in her pan, it was “shining back at me,” she told the Sacramento Bee.

    It’s rare but not unheard of for diamonds to show up in California. The SacBee reports that hundreds of diamonds have been found by gold miners since the days of the California gold rush. Most of those rocks, though, are small and not suitable to be made into jewelry. In other words, they’re not particularly valuable.

    This one is big enough that it may have some worth, although it’s impossible to know until it’s cut. Still, it’s not every day that you find a diamond—even when you’re looking for gold.

    "I was like, I just found a diamond! In a 70 million year old section of river," Kelly told the Bee. "It was like a miracle. It was awesome."


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    In 1959, Time reported that California real estate developer M. Penn Phillips claimed to have sold more parcels of land than any man alive. Two years later, though, his development flops led to the suspension of his business license in the state and Phillips looked north to Christmas Valley, an unincorporated community in the high desert of Central Oregon.

    About 30 miles from the nearest highway in the “Oregon Outback,” Christmas Valley was a sparsely populated town that didn’t have electricity until 1955. Between ancient rock structures lay fields of sagebrush, stretching for miles. To this day, it’s so empty in some places you can hear the scurrying of quails and jackrabbits or the slow approach of a cougar or bobcat.

    Still, all Phillips saw was potential. He built an airport, an A-framed lodge, rodeo grounds, and a nine-hole golf course. Before he hit Oregon, Christmas Valley didn’t even have a school. Inspired by the town’s name—which is most likely an homage to pioneer stockman Peter Christman—Phillips assigned equally festive names to the streets: Snowman Road and Christmas Tree and Glitter Lanes. While Phillips’s vision held some promise, there was a reason the area had yet to be developed.

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    The Christmas Lake Valley basin was formerly an inland sea. Previously, homesteaders had populated the region, but frustrated that they couldn’t make a living, most abandoned their homes for greener pastures. The unpredictable weather—living up to the name, it’s been known to snow on the 4th of July—and other difficulties of surviving with little access to arable water meant Christmas Valley was not for the faint of heart.

    “Christmas Valley was just a place where two roads came together,” says 68-year-old Alan Parks, a hay rancher who lives between the town and neighboring Fort Rock. His grandfather, Henry Parks, was a geologist who came to the area in 1921 after receiving a grant from the State of Oregon to irrigate the aquifer beneath the basin. But the 1929 economic crash halted his project, and he survived on the profits of 3,000 laying hens until his death in 1945.

    Henry’s son Merritt decided to stay in the area, marrying a woman from Iowa with whom he had Alan. At the time, it was 12 miles to the post office and 80 to the nearest doctor. Parks says he was one of two students in his seventh grade class in Fort Rock, even with children bussed in from neighboring areas.

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    One of those other students was Wanda Lanear. She moved to Christmas Valley from Colorado in 1955 with her mom Evelyn and stepfather Johnny. Lanear remembered exploring the desert around her parents’ ranch, discovering Native American artifacts as well as homesteads that people had abandoned so abruptly there was still food on the table. As she got older, she and friends chased the strange lights they saw in the sky. To this day, she thinks they might have been aliens.

    Lanear says it wasn’t a shock when Phillips came to town. She remembered running into local land speculator Phil Pittman, who had helped bring electric power to the high desert. “Pittman came up to my mother and said, ‘Evelyn, you need to get your real estate license. I just sold a whole damn desert.’ I remember that. And he had. He had sold it to Penn Phillips,” says Lanear.

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    In 1960, Pittman sold over 72,000 acres of Christmas Valley to the Penn Phillips Company, which soon began an ambitious infrastructure project. Phillips laid out the town and installed a water system. He also added an artificial lake known as Christmas Valley Lake, today referred to as Baert Lake. This was accompanied by an equally calculated advertising campaign. Phillips pitched Christmas Valley as both an agricultural hotspot for prospective farmers and as the ideal American town for retirees.

    Lanear remembers the families Phillips flew in from Los Angeles and San Francisco for the day to be wined and dined. Parks also recalls watching the airplanes land and take off, although he says that Phillips’s “sales force did not encourage the customers to mingle with the locals too much. It might have damaged the sale percentage.” The all-too-brief-visits didn’t allow the visitors to see the difficulties of living in a town that didn’t even have a doctor in residence.

    “Well, what little I remember, a lot of the locals were reasonably critical,” Parks says. “It didn't make any sense that people were going to come out here and farm 20-acre parcels and 40-acre parcels when we were having a time making a living on 5,000 acres.”

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    In the short term, Phillips’s efforts were successful. According to the Oregon Historical Society, he had sold close to 100 percent of the land in the first three months.

    To an extent, this prosperity expanded to Christmas Valley’s residents. Lanear, like both her parents, became a real estate agent. She described this era, when she benefited financially from the development, as the “good old days.”

    “I would say if you were a local out here at the time and wanted a job, you got one,” Lanear says. “Hands down, you could have a job.”

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    But this didn’t mean that the new landowners were quick to arrive. When asked where the town’s new residents were, a Penn Phillips Company representative responded in a July 1967 Oregon Journal article, “They are coming. There will be no boom, but I believe in land. There isn’t enough of it.”

    But the migration never actually materialized. In 1962, the company had estimated the population would reach 5,000, but by 1972, only 150 people lived in the development, according to OHS. A year later, Phillips abandoned Christmas Valley.

    Some, like real estate agent Rebecca Law, only realized their relatives owned land in Christmas Valley after those relatives died. In Law’s case, it was her father. “No one knew why he bought it,” she writes on her website. “He faithfully paid the $30 property taxes for many years, but never saw the property. His parcel is in an undeveloped area surrounded by sand dunes and has a negligible market value.”

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    For the residents of Christmas Valley, Penn Phillips has a nuanced legacy. Lanear is glad the town has stayed almost as small as it was when she moved there over 60 years ago. “I’ve just been here for so long,” she says. “I love the laid backness. You know most people. It’s like that old saying, ‘I don’t need to use my turn signal. They know where I’m going.’ You walk into the store, and they all know you.”

    Fran Baxter, who owns a seasonal antiques shop in what she believes is Phillips’s old office, says she likes the trust that exists in a small community and the wide-open spaces. “It's beautiful here,” she says. “When you can look out into your driveway and look at a bald eagle sitting on the end, how can you do better than that?”

    Carl Shumway moved to Christmas Valley in the 1980s, after the failure of Phillips’s plans. He says that the streets of abandoned properties are an “eyesore,” but he’s optimistic. Shumway, who can often be found on the golf course designed by Phillips, says that recent developments, including the possible reopening of the lodge, are hints that Christmas Valley’s future could be bright.

    “There are very few rural communities in the Northwest that have this caliber of assets,” he says. “And these are things that Penn Phillips put in place when he initially developed this. So Penn Phillips gets a lot of flack for some of the stuff that people disagreed with, but look at what we got today.”

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    Phillips’s mixed legacy is reflected not only in Christmas Valley, but also his other developments. Right before he set his sights on Oregon, he had finished his largest and most iconic development, Salton City in California. The resort, which included a luxury hotel and yacht club, attracted Hollywood elite, such as Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. Although many invested, few actually built property, much like in Christmas Valley. During the mid-1970s, Salton City was flooding from agricultural runoff, and by the end of the decade, it was mostly abandoned.

    As the population of Christmas Valley stagnated in the 1970s, there was growth, albeit modest, in Hesperia, another California development that Phillips financed with support from famed boxer Jack Dempsey. Phillips and his wife were also major benefactors to Claremont McKenna College, where a hall is named in their honor. For some, he’s remembered as a real estate tycoon. For others, he’s a crook who was a better salesman than developer. Whichever the case, it’s clear that Phillips had big dreams of taming the West and building an empire, whether they materialized or not.

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    Although Christmas Valley never reached Phillips’s initial goal of 5,000 inhabitants, the population today is about 1,300, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Christmas Valley is not much more than a central main street surrounded by scattered houses, but the town has more to provide than what Phillips left behind. Residents can order a B.L.T. at the new Sagehen Cafe, where the waitstaff wear Christmas aprons; find treasures at a handful of antique shops; or even seek medical care in town. Relics of Phillips’s influence are still present, from the whimsical street signs poking out of the sagebrush to the mid-century buildings that have more or less survived the last four decades. But less than artifacts of a bygone area, these structures are testaments to the resiliency of a town that refused to die, whether abandoned by inexperienced homesteaders, those with dreams of agricultural fortune, or the man who put it on the map.


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    A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.

    Modern hair combs are unusually simple tools—perhaps our simplest. Their single row of bristles, usually black, are designed to do one thing—separate and organize your hair follicles into a more attractive format.

    They do this effectively, without the need of any electricity. And they’re cheap, too—you never have one when you need one, but you can buy a pack of 72 of them for eight bucks, or 11 cents each.

    But even these simple devices carry an air of mystery. Specifically: Why does my comb need to announce itself as “unbreakable?" Does it matter these days? And, of course, has anyone successfully broken one?

    The answer, it turns out, lies in the past, as it was the inventiveness of Charles Goodyear proved a turning point in American history, not just for combs, but for manufacturing. His 1843 discovery of the vulcanization process, which cured and toughened rubber in ways that made it a more useful material, was not an easy one to get to. His early efforts, according to Rubber: An American Industrial History, earned respect from major politicians like Andrew Jackson and Henry Clay, but his products struggled on the market and he at one point faced bankruptcy.

    But once he figured out his vulcanization process, Goodyear was in a position to reinvent numerous industries, with combs being near the top of the list.

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    (If you're curious: Goodyear died nearly 40 years before the tire manufacturer named for him was created. And while there was also an industrialist named Charles W. Goodyear who came to prominence in the late 19th century, the vulcanized rubber inventor was unrelated.)

    At the time, combs tended to be made using fragile materials like bone, wood, and ivory, which, when dropped, could easily break. But Goodyear’s combs were different: Rubber wasn’t a shatter risk, of course, and it was also firm enough to be used while offering a degree of flexibility. The combs, at first, were not cheap, but according to Chauncey Depew’s 1895 book 1795-1895: One Hundred Years of American Commerce, Volume 2, they soon reinvented the market:

    The first article made in hard rubber to any considerable extent was the comb. It is said that Goodyear's first experiments in this line made his combs cost twenty times as much as the ivory combs then in use ; but the rubber comb has now practically displaced all other kinds. Probably five hundred varieties of rubber combs have been made since the beginning of this industry.

    Goodyear, who died in 1860, left behind a growing comb market, with two companies allowed to sell the devices under his patent—the India Rubber Comb Company and the American Hard Rubber Company. Eventually, though, Goodyear’s patent expired, and competition started to build up in the comb space, leading to more aggressive advertising in newspapers and trade publications. One of the common phrases that gained currency in the late 19th century was “unbreakable,” something highlighted by the Hercules Combs sold by the Butler Hard Rubber Company.

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    “Various kinds of so-called unbreakable combs have been offered to the public at different times, and the trade is cautioned against accepting any not bearing the gold stamp ‘Hercules,’ Warranted Unbreakable, on the one side, and The Butler Hard Rubber Co. in black on the other,” an ad for the device in American Druggist said in 1891.

    It wouldn’t last, thanks to the eventual use in plastic, but there was a time when people thought of the word “Goodyear” and combs came to mind—rather than tires.

    Eventually, though, the inevitability that was plastic came, and from the moment that John Wesley Hyatt, came up with one of the first usable plastics, celluloid, it was obvious where things were going. Hyatt was inspired by an 1863 contest that offered a $10,000 prize for anyone who could come up with a billiard ball that wasn’t made of ivory. Hyatt never came up with the billiard ball, but he soon was producing combs. In 1878, he was awarded a patent—one of many he would receive in his life—for “improvement in the manufacture of combs from celluloid.”

    It makes sense that plastic combs quickly found a home on the market. The use case was perfectly matched for the type of material, for one thing, but it was also an object that was very easy to make and mold into a specific shape. When new types of plastic, such as nylon, appeared, combs often used the materials first.

    They also became more utilitarian, and less elaborate than the bone, wood, or ivory combs that had come before.

    “With the rise of mass-production plastics, the fanciful decorative combs and faux ivory dresser sets so popular in the celluloid era gradually disappeared,” the author Susan Freinkel noted in a book excerpt on Scientific American. “Combs were now stripped to the most essential elements—teeth and handle—in service of their most basic function.”

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    And after World War II, a truly “unbreakable” material—polypropylene, a flexible plastic invented by two European scientists in the 1950s—quickly became the high watermark for plastics, and, ultimately, redefined the comb yet again.

    A 1975 Philadelphia Daily News article, colorfully, highlights the way that combs became a difficult business to stick with. Clement A. Belusar, the marketing director of the then-recently shuttered Ajax Comb Company, broke down how the move to an “unbreakable” plastic permanently did in the company.

    “Then came polypropylene and the unbreakable comb. Our downfall,” he explained. “The only time you had to replace a comb was when you lost it. And when you lost it, somebody else could find it and he wouldn’t have to buy one. We’re out of the business …”

    I lose combs pretty often, so I assume that they should’ve just waited for me to be born.

    “Oh wow, maybe it really is unbreakable.”

    Of the many unusual activities that can be found on YouTube, one of the weirdest involves a subsection of kids who feel compelled to test the claims of unbreakability parlayed by cheap modern combs picked up at such fine establishments as Sport Clips.

    Some were successful, even unexpectedly so. Others weren’t so lucky.

    (Fun discovery when watching some of these clips: In at least one instance, I ran into a pre-roll ad for Red Lobster highlighting its Crabfest—before, you know, watching someone bending a comb in a very similar way. They know.)

    Of course, the truth of the matter is that combs were aiming for a very specific kind of unbreakability—the phrase refers to the fact that the teeth aren’t designed to fall out if you drop the device on the ground, not the idea that an 11-cent device would survive an endurance test.

    We’re not talking Unbreakable in the M. Night Shyamalan sense here. Cheap combs don’t possess superpowers.

    What they do possess, however, is the ability to reliably comb your hair.

    A version of this post originally appeared on Tedium, a twice-weekly newsletter that hunts for the end of the long tail.

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    Everything you believed as a child is a lie. Your Furby doesn't know who you are. The Tamagotchi you cherished, then killed with neglect, was never actually alive. Sea monkeys don't look like monkeys—they're cryptobiotic brine shrimp! And astronaut ice cream? The stuff that you made your parents buy in the museum gift shop that comes in foil packets and vanilla, raspberry, and chocolate flavors that more or less taste the same? It never actually went to space.

    But there is such a thing as astronaut ice cream. As a group, these intrepid explorers, scientists, and pilots love the stuff. So they were very excited, according to NPR, when earlier this week a shipment of 30 individual Bluebell ice cream cups and some Snickers ice cream bars were shot up to them, 250 miles above the surface of the Earth. Let's see Amazon Prime try that. (Patience.)

    The frozen treats came as part of a usual resupply mission to the International Space Station. Some 6,400 pounds of lab equipment, supplies, and food arrived in the SpaceX Dragon capsule. The challenge for ice cream in space is storing it once it gets there. Sure, space is very cold, but you can't hang the ice cream outside like a six-pack in a mountain stream. Astronauts have limited freezer and refrigeration space, mostly used for storing blood and urine samples—not what you want to root through in search of a popsicle. However, the supply capsule, which returns to Earth, has freezers to bring back those samples, leaving a little extra cold storage in the orbiting station.

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    The catch, if you want to call it that, is that the astronauts are going to need to that freezer space back, so they have to launch into a full-scale ice cream party. They have just a few weeks to empty the freezer. "It's a really special treat, but when it gets there, they have no place to put it," Vickie Kloeris, from NASA's Space Food Systems Laboratory, told NPR. "It's tough duty, but they'll manage to eat it in the time allowed."

    There are other goodies among the supplies: citrus fruits, carrots, even a surprise avocado or two. Astronauts can live at the International Space Station for as long as a year, and when one spends that long in a confined, alien space, the psychological impact of food becomes very important. After an initial phase where astronauts were given free rein on what to eat, Kloeris and her colleagues decided to put together a standardized menu that maximizes variety and minimizes repetition. "Now," she said, "all the managers in the space station program are aware how important it is to be sure these crew members get coffee the way they like it."

    One thing that has little psychological impact in space, however, is freeze-dried ice cream. Given the choice, it turns out, adult humans don't really like it, especially if the real stuff is available, even occasionally. NASA did originally commission the product for one of the Apollo missions, but never made it part of the space program. "It wasn't that popular; most of the crew really didn't like it," Kloeris said, in a NASA feature.


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    In Neustadt, Germany—in the western part of the country, not far from the French border—a truck with 20 tons of chocolate, including a lot of Nutella (primarily sugar and palm oil), went missing last weekend. It was probably stolen, according to the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. The problem for the thieves behind such a caper is how one goes about profiting from such a haul. Fence it all as quickly as possible for cents on the euro? Feed it into Europe's chocolate black market? Set up a stand on the corner?

    "Anyone offered large quantities (of chocolate) via unconventional channels should report it to the police immediately," German authorities said in a statement, which begs the question of how often large amounts of chocolate pass through unconventional channels.

    Police said the stolen truck, which was also carrying Kinder Eggs and other chocolates, contained $82,000 worth of goods, and could've been towed away by a bigger truck. They also suspect the crime is connected to an earlier theft of an empty truck.

    Have you been offered a large amount of chocolate through unconventional channels recently? If you see something, say something.


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    The Great American Eclipse is nearly upon us! In just a couple of days, the Moon’s shadow will cut a wide swath right through the center of the country to the delight, wonder, and fascination of millions of eclipse watchers. To prepare you for the once-in-a-lifetime (for some) event, we asked you what you most want to know about the spectacular celestial event. You did not disappoint!

    We picked 15 of the most-asked and most-intriguing questions sent to us, and then scoured the internet and reached out to experts to get you answers. Before you witness this most jaw-dropping natural event, here’s everything you wanted to know about the eclipse (and probably a few things you didn’t know you were curious about).

    Bob from Absecon, New Jersey, asks:

    What date and between what times will I be able to see the eclipse from my town?

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    By far the most frequently asked question was whether the eclipse would be viewable from where you are. The most stunning views of the eclipse will be within the path of totality, where the Sun will be completely obscured by the Moon. There, camping sites and lodging have been sold out for months (even years, in some cases), and millions of people are expected to flood rural communities nationwide for the best views. So, expect traffic and crowding if you plan to seek totality at the last minute.

    But even outside of the path, the skies will darken with a partial eclipse over the entire country (Hawaii and Alaska, too) at some point on August 21.

    Thankfully, NASA has an exhaustive database of materials and resources that can tell you exactly when the eclipse will darken your patch of sky, and by how much. There are also interactive maps from NASA and eclipse fanatic Xavier Jubier that can provide even more granular data about every moment.

    However, no matter where you are, your view of the eclipse is going to depend greatly on the weather. A simple cloudy day could block your view entirely. Be sure to check the weather if you plan on making an event of it. —Eric Grundhauser, Staff Writer

    Jacob from Miami, Florida, asks:

    Why do you have to wear special glasses when watching an eclipse?

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    Many readers had questions about that most iconic piece of eclipse gear, the glasses. We asked Rick Fienberg, press officer for the American Astronomical Society for the lowdown eclipse eye protection. "Eclipse glasses are thousands of times darker than ordinary sunglasses and block almost all the sun's ultraviolet, visible, and infrared light," he says. "Ordinary sunglasses block 50 percent. Eclipse glasses block 99.999 percent. They are made of special materials that absorb and/or reflect the Sun’s radiation at all wavelengths that could potentially harm our eyes."

    There is, during the eclipse, a very small window of time when you can remove the glasses—totality. "Eclipse glasses are meant for use during the partial phases of the eclipse, when the Moon blocks part—but not all—of the Sun’s bright face," he says. "You can also use them on any sunny day, though there’s not much to see unless there happens to be a ginormous sunspot, i.e., one big enough to be visible to the safely filtered but otherwise unaided eye. The only time it is safe to remove the filters and look directly at the Sun is during totality, when the Moon covers the entire bright face of the Sun and the solar corona is visible." All of that being said, this is by no means an exact guide, so always take the proper care when looking at the sun.

    Also, Feinberg warns people to never ever use eclipse glasses as protection when looking through telescopes or binoculars. There are special filters for that (see below). —EG

    Julie from Chicago, Illinois, asks:

    Have there ever been any documented cases of eclipse blindness?

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    Surprisingly, for all the risk associated with staring at the Sun, there are few known cases of eclipses completely blinding people. An investigation of the question on Live Science states that there have been more than 100 documented cases of serious or permanent vision damage caused by eclipses, which isn't bad considering the frequency of eclipses and how many millions of people have experienced them, even without eclipse glasses.

    The damage, technically called "solar retinopathy," is not caused by the eclipse itself, but people watching it tend to force themselves to stare, and overcome the normal reflex to look away. The lowered amount of perceived light makes that easier to do.

    Most people who have reported problems with their eyesight after an eclipse find that the effects fade with time. But permanent damage is a real risk, so wear those glasses, or don't look for too long, even if you're shading your eyes. —EG

    Vince from Florida asks:

    How will this eclipse affect werewolves?

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    Multiple people asked how the eclipse will impact werewolves. Sure enough, there is lore on how solar eclipses affect lycanthropes. According to the blog Ask Mystic Investigations, the eclipse could cause werewolves to transform prematurely and act erratically. Resource blog Your Lupine Life states that lunar eclipses tend to make werewolves "extra agitated an (sic) extra horny as weird as that may sound you also experience mood swings and your strength and speed will become increasingly strong."

    Those who think they have this terrible affliction (and the people around them), should take the appropriate precautions, up to and including an eclipse cage of some sort. —EG

    Ken from Grand Island, Nebraska, asks:

    I've read that I need a special filter for my camera. Where do I find one?

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    Multiple people had questions about their cameras and how to take pictures of the eclipse, and any advice depends on the camera you’re using.

    The vast majority of people trying to photograph the eclipse are going to do it with a smartphone, and Apple told USA Today that direct sunlight has little ability to damage the digital image sensor on a smartphone. The cameras on phones are usually very wide angle, meaning the sun will be just a tiny dot in photos taken with them. A more pressing question is why one would bother—unless your phone camera is covered by a solar filter (the one you use for your eyes will do), any attempt at photos of it shy of totality are going to be washed out by glare. And even with a filter, the sun will still be little more than a tiny, pixelated speck. A better way to remember the moment might be to capture the scene around you, maybe with the eclipse in the background.

    More serious cameras with larger lenses, such as SLRs, are more susceptible to damage from the Sun. Picture a magnifying glass, a sunny day, a line of ants, and a sadistic child. The large, magnifying optics of zoom lenses, especially the large ones needed to get a tight image of the eclipse, can focus the sunlight in a way that can damage a sensor as easily as it can damage an eye. Solar filters, widely available at camera stores, take away this risk by reducing the light from the sun by about 100,000 times, and are a necessity for useful pictures. Just remember not to use the viewfinder to look at the Sun.

    This all changes at the moment of totality, however. Your eclipse glasses can come off, and your solar filter might as well be a lens cap. Eyes and cameras are completely safe during this brief period.

    A few more tips: Don’t get so caught up in fiddling with a camera that you forget to watch the eclipse. Make sure your flash is off—it will not illuminate the Moon, but it will annoy everyone around you. And those people are going to make great photographic subjects, too. —Samir S. Patel, Deputy Editor

    Mary Jane from New Baltimore, Michigan, asks:

    Is there an increase in automobile accidents during an eclipse?

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    The short answer is no. At least not so far.

    The United States last experienced a major solar eclipse in May 2012, when people in California, Texas, and a few other states saw one. A scan of American newspapers for the following days reveals just a single car accident linked to the eclipse—a driver in San Francisco, who told police she was temporarily blinded by the eclipse, hit a mother and daughter in a crosswalk. The daughter’s arm was broken.

    That's enough for authorities to issue stern warnings to drivers about keeping their eyes on the road and not taking pictures. But they seem more concerned with congestion. With millions traveling to the 70- to 90-mile band where a total eclipse will be visible, transportation departments have compared the situation to Super Bowls and music festivals. They warn drivers to plan ahead, and they have suspended construction projects in eclipse areas. To the extent that police officers and insurance agents expect more accidents, it is due to heavy traffic, not an act of God.

    But since total solar eclipses are rare, no one knows for sure if there will be a leap in automobile accidents. The 2012 eclipse was an annular eclipse—the sun still appeared as a ring of fire around the moon, providing more light than the total eclipse will.

    “Total eclipses are so rare,” says Michael Barry of the Insurance Information Institute, “there is not enough data to indicate whether the number of U.S. auto accidents increase when eclipses take place.”

    A total eclipse last swept across the country like this in 1918, when the Ford Model T still dominated roads. Monday will see totality cross some of the world’s densest highway and road systems. Given that experienced eclipse chasers recommend being mobile, in case a cloud appears in your viewing area, it’s worth being extra cautious and aware of thousands of eclipse watchers driving frantically, in search of the perfect view. —Alex Mayyasi, Gastro Obscura Editor

    Johnny from Florida asks:

    If we didn't have eclipses, how would we have tested general relativity, or, in your opinion, would the theory have been resigned to the trash bin for lack of any way to test it?

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    Albert Einstein himself proposed three tests of his theory of general relativity. Just one, which measures how the Sun's gravity bends light from other sources, could only be measured during an eclipse in the early 20th century. He also suggested that the orbital ellipse of Mercury would change because of the sun's gravity, and that starlight reaching Earth from large stars would shift to the red end of the visible light spectrum. These have all been observed. Other tests have been devised since then, and some are still in progress. The European Space Agency's Gaia satellite will observe 500,000 quasars and measure how their light is deflected by massive objects like the Sun. Gravitational waves, first detected in 2015, also help test the theory, which predicted their existence. Proving the theory without eclipses would just have been a matter of time. —Kelsey Kennedy, Editorial Fellow

    Jim from Cincinnati, Ohio, asks:

    What are 'Baily's Beads'?

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    Despite what it may look like here on Earth, the Moon is not a perfect sphere. It's covered in mountains, valleys, and craters, and they're most obvious when the Moon passes in front of the Sun. During a total solar eclipse, sunlight shines through those peaks and valleys right as the moon's edges line up with the Sun, creating beads of light—Baily's Beads, named for astronomer Francis Baily, who described them in 1836. When the Moon moves so that there's just one bead of light, it's known as a diamond ring. —KK

    H.T. from Missouri asks:

    What exactly is the phenomenon known as ‘shadow snakes'?

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    "Shadow snakes," sometimes called "shadow bands," are a bit mysterious. These waves of shadow can be seen just before and after totality, most easily on white surfaces, and were described as far back as the ninth century. But scientists still aren't entirely sure what causes them. They're unpredictable, and the most likely explanation is that they're caused by the same atmospheric turbulence that makes stars appear to twinkle. —KK

    Harley Boy Snigglesnort from New Orleans, Louisiana, asks:

    As a dog, how dangerous is it for me to look at the eclipse? Should my man-friend keep me inside the entire time?

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    We received a couple of questions from ... users, about whether the eclipse will negatively affect pets.

    Though your pet will look adorable in a pair of eclipse glasses, they probably won't need them. Animals are much smarter than we are, in their way, so they tend not to gaze at the Sun, even when it looks weird. On top of that, total solar eclipses can be a bit scary for animals. It may be a struggle to get them out from under the bed at all, at least until the darkness has passed. Just in case, perhaps it is best keep them inside with the blinds down. (You'll have plenty of time earlier in the day to get your Instagram snaps of Lucky in his safety glasses.) —Natasha Frost, Editorial Fellow

    Ella Mae from Arkansas asks:

    When will the next eclipse occur?

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    The next total solar eclipse is a little less than two years out, in Chile and Argentina. If you miss that one, there's another about 18 months later, in the same general place. But you won't have to go that far for another shot. In just seven years, another total solar eclipse will pass across a large swath of the United States—which means that some lucky people—the residents of Carbondale, Illinois, will get to see both from the comfort of home. If you're thinking even further ahead, there are another seven coming between now and 2050. In fact, we've compiled details on all the notable upcoming eclipses just for you! —NF

    Micki from Coral Springs, Florida, asks:

    Why does the eclipse travel from west to east when the sun travels from east to west?

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    One of the strange-seeming things that will happen during the upcoming eclipse is that the shadow of the Moon will move from the west side of the continent to the east, in apparent opposition to the usual course of the Sun across the sky from east to west. An article on Space.com tackled this question, and the answer is that the movement of the shadow is dictated by the Moon, not the Sun. The Moon's orbit goes west-to-east, and so goes the shadow! —EG

    Andrew from Boulder, Colorado, asks:

    Are there eclipses on other planets?

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    On August 20, 2013, the Curiosity Rover took a break from snuffling around the surface of Mars to watch something really cool: the larger of Mars’s two moons, Phobos, passing directly in front of the Sun. Unlike Earth’s moon, Phobos is too small and/or far from Mars to pull off a total eclipse. Instead, it did the best it could, interrupting the Sun’s brightness without obscuring it completely. Together, three photographs the Rover took look like a muppet rolling its eyes.

    As astronomer Christa Van Laerhoven recently told Live Science, you really only need two things for an eclipse: a sun and a moon that orbits it on the same plane. While Mercury and Venus don’t meet this criteria, the rest of the planets in our solar system do, to varying extents. Mars gets the aforementioned partial blockouts, called “annular” or “ring” eclipses.

    Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune all have numerous moons (Jupiter has 69, though only 53 have names so far!) so if you could stand on one of those gas giants, you would see eclipses fairly regularly—total ones when the moon in question is big or close enough, and partial ones when it’s not. Every ten years or so, three of Jupiter’s largest moons pass over the sun at the same time, and the planet witnesses a triple-eclipse. (It's worth noting that the Sun appears much smaller in the sky from these more-distant planets than it does on Earth.)

    Everyone’s favorite almost-planet, Pluto, also gets solar eclipses. It takes Pluto 248 Earth years to orbit around the Sun once. Twice during this period, Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, take turns getting in the Sun’s way, eclipsing each other once every single Plutonian day for about three Earth years. Then they quit it again until the next time.

    Eclipses now probably seem like a dime a dozen! But if space tourists could pick anywhere in this solar system to see one, though, they’d probably come here, because our home planet’s moon is the perfect size for celestial drama. As Van Laerhoven explains, “When the Moon passes in front of the Sun, the photosphere [the Sun's luminous outer shell] gets covered, but the corona [the sun's upper atmosphere] remains visible.” This results in that classic view of an almost-completely-shrouded Sun, its light just barely peeking out around the edges. So rest assured: If you can catch totality, you’ve got the best eclipse view for billions and billions of miles. —Cara Giaimo, Staff Writer

    Stephanie from Union, Missouri, asks:

    How do eclipses affect tides?

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    A handful of readers wrote in to ask whether the eclipse will affect the tides, and answer is yes! As we mentioned in our very own list of great places to experience extraordinary tidal forces, when the Sun, Moon, and Earth all align, it creates what is known as a "spring tide." This powerful variety of tide produces the greatest difference between high and low tides. A spring tide occurs after every new and full moon, but they also happen during an eclipse. So if you plan on watching the eclipse near the water, you might want to wear flood pants. —EG

    Ben from Atlanta, Georgia, asks:

    What's the funniest thing that's ever happened during an eclipse?

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    This is a tough one. Since most people are too busy staring at the sky in awe to crack jokes, there's not a whole lot of hilarious anecdotes out there, but we asked amateur astronomer and eclipse chaser Mike Kentrianakis, the man behind what is probably the most joyful (and pretty funny own its own right) eclipse video in existence. "[There's a] story of an airplane cleaning woman who got locked into a flight that had to depart and they wouldn't let her out because they had to leave exactly on time," he says. "She ended up being the luckiest woman in South America because she saw was the only woman from South America to see the eclipse from the plane!" That might be funny? —EG

    Still hungry for more eclipse knowledge? Check out all of our eclipse stories here!


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    Terrifying. Adorable. Portentous. However the sight of 1,069 humanoid robots dancing in mesmerizing unison makes you feel, it is most definitely record breaking.

    Shared over on Boing Boing, Guinness World Records put out a video of the 1,069 wiggling robots to announce that the performance had set a new world record for “Most Robots Dancing Simultaneously.” Staged by the WL Intelligent Technology Co, Ltd in Guangzhou, Guangdong, China, the spectacle beat out the previous record holder, a performance in 2015 that featured just 1,007 robots.

    The robots were all commercially available Dobi bots, the primary purpose of which seems to be dancing. Arrayed in a giant grid, the robots seem to be able to stay in formation pretty well, although they slip out of there lines a bit, and few of the little guys fell over.

    Still, it’s a whimsical vision of a future where robots are only stealing our sick dance moves, and not our jobs.


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    When Prince Albert died in 1861 at the age of 42, his wife, Queen Victoria was very upset. She never again wore anything but black in public. As another sign of mourning, she introduced black swans to a lake on the grounds of Rosenau Palace, Prince Albert's birthplace in central Germany. The tradition of keeping black swans there has continued to this day, and recently, a female black swan found herself in need of a new companion following the apparent death of her partner in the jaws of a fox. Swans famously mate for life (though divorce is possible).

    And so, as the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports, caretakers earlier this month posted a call for help on a government website, requesting a black swan, of either sex and ideally over three years of age, as a new companion. A breeder in Ingolstadt, about two-and-a-half hours south of the palace, responded within days and provided a nine-month-old black swan to the palace.

    On Thursday, a palace official told Deutsche Welle that so far everything looks good. "Both swans are swimming happily on the lake," he said. "It's going well."

    Officials won't know the new swan's gender for more than two years, when it turns three. Though, as they said in the original ad, "The sex of the animal isn't important." They just want an end to the loneliness.


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    On Monday, August 21, Elise Ricard, like millions of others across the United States, will stare at the sky for about ninety seconds to watch the moon fully eclipse the sun.

    Just before that, though, she's going to try to spend five minutes or so watching a squirrel. And afterwards, if her mind isn't too blown, she's going to find that same squirrel, and watch it again.

    We more or less know what people will get up to during the eclipse. They might renew their wedding vows, or scream, or listen to an appropriate and beloved pop song. Most will be looking upwards. But Ricard, a driving force behind the California Academy of Sciences' "Life Responds" eclipse research project, is one of many researchers around the world who are dying to know something else: what are the other animals going to do?

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    People, including scientists, tell tales about watching animals react to an eclipse: seeing llamas line up calmly to observe it, or coming across whales throwing a pre-totality splash party. But many such stories are just that: stories, unsupported by broader data. In the past, when researchers have tried to ask this question more rigorously, they've had to be content with small-scale answers, necessarily focusing on one population of one species in one place. One paper, written in 1998, tells of schools of reef fish that "swam with alarm" when the sun disappeared. Another, about a 1991 eclipse, details the behavior of colonial orb-weaving spiders, which greeted the darkening sky by destroying and eating their own webs—a response that seems less dramatic when you consider that they do the same thing every night.

    But as technology makes collaboration easier, some researchers have gotten more ambitious. In 2010, during a solar eclipse that passed over India, about a hundred volunteers took part in a project called EclipseWatch, using an online form to submit observations about animal behavior. (Some highlights: "dogs seemed unaffected," and red-wattled laplings bathed "where they normally do not.")

    Seven years later, such possibilities look even brighter. For "Life Responds"—which also asks citizen scientists to record observations about how wildlife behave just before and just after the eclipse, using an existing app called iNaturalist—"we have this great confluence of fortunate things coming around," says Ricard. One is the location of the path of totality, which cuts a large swath across the continental U.S. and happens to pass over dozens of national parks and open spaces.

    Another is the eclipse's popularity—if just a small percentage of eclipse-watchers participate in the campaign, that will still mean thousands of responses. Ricard hopes this will not only shed light on what individual animals do, but answer larger questions. "For instance, what percentage of eclipse coverage do you need to get a response from plants and animals?" she says. "Is 80 percent enough? Do you need to be in the 90 or 100 percent range?"

    Megan McKenna, of the U.S. National Park Service's Natural Sounds and Night Skies division, is working on answering similar questions in a different way. With help from researchers across the country, she's putting audio recorders in remote areas of various national parks and monuments, where they can capture the private reactions of birds, insects, and other animals to the eclipse.

    Changes in light tend to provoke some of nature's noisiest times: "We're trying to figure out what happens during an eclipse, and how it relates to a typical dawn and dusk chorus," McKenna says. Seventeen parks and monuments are participating in the initiative—15 in the path of totality, and two just outside of it, for comparison's sake.

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    So what does everyone expect will happen? For one thing, a lot of animals might try to go to sleep: "Birds will settle in their nests," says ranger Joe Reasoner of Fort Laramie National Historic Site. "Chickens and cows will head toward the barn thinking it is evening time." "Some mammals simply lay down," adds another of the Fort's rangers, Mike Evans. Meanwhile, nocturnal animals may think it's their time to shine, and come out to eat and chat. "Crickets might start chirping," writes Alvis Mar, a ranger at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, in an email. "Some toads might become more active. Owls may hoot."

    All of these plans, of course, will be quickly scuppered when the sun reappears. At that point, researchers expect the animals might jump back into their daytime routines: coming out of the barn, greeting the "daybreak" with song, or (for the nocturnal ones) hiding again. As Shelley Buranek of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument puts it, "anecdotal evidence… suggests that [certain animals] will behave as if the day is ending and beginning anew." In other words, they'll treat the eclipse like regular life, but on fast-forward.

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    In some cases, though, experts are holding out for more surprising reactions. At the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, caretakers will be keeping a close eye on the American alligators, which tend to rumble during thunderstorms, and the ring-tailed and red-ruffed lemurs—which, as the zoo's primate expert Chelsea Feast details in a press release, have a special relationship with the sun. "They are very in tune with the light cycle," Feast says. "They may react with vocalizations…[or] they may sit quietly and just watch the sky."

    An understandable response, but one we're interested in all the same. "We plan to have two GoPro cameras in the lemur exhibit," assures the zoo's communications director, Thom Benson. We wouldn't want to miss their reactions just because we'll be looking at the same thing.

    Learn more about how you can participate in the "Life Responds" project here.