July 31, 2009
Standing in the entrance to the first floor west wing of the National Museum of American History, a large telescope towers over visitors. It’s angled toward the ceiling, drawing the eye up to imagine the sky above. Saturday marks an auspicious day for the artifact. It is the 191st birthday of astronomer Maria Mitchell, a woman who not only broke the proverbial glass ceiling of her time but managed to gaze deep into the heavens, using this telescope and made significant contributions to the science.
Made by New Yorker Henry Fitz, it was the third largest in the U.S. in the late 1800s. With a 12-3/8 inch diameter lens and equatorial mount, which aligned it with Earth’s poles, the astronomical instrument is impressive.
In 1818, women weren’t expected to be scientists, much less astronomers. Maria Mitchell, born on August 1 of that year, challenged that preconception, becoming an astronomy professor at Vassar Female College where she used Fitz’s telescope.
Mitchell grew up in Nantucket and was greatly influenced by her father, William Mitchell, who was a teacher and encouraged her use of his telescope. For 20 years, she worked as a librarian, while watching the stars at night.
In October 1847, Mitchell established the orbit of a new comet, a discovery that skyrocketed her standing in the scientific community, and she won a medal from the King of Denmark for her efforts. The next year, she became the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and became known as America’s first professional female astronomer.
Mitchell accepted a teaching position at Vassar Female College when it opened in 1865. She was an astronomy professor and director of the observatory, which housed the Fitz telescope that had been purchased by the college’s founder, Matthew Vassar.
As a teacher Mitchell encouraged her students to use science to break free from traditional female roles. She once said: “When (women) come to truth through their investigations … the truth which they get will be theirs, and their minds will work on and on unfettered.”
Now, 191 years after her birth, visitors to the American History Museum can see the larger-than-life telescope that Mitchell used during her time at Vassar. As a landmark object, the telescope guides visitors to the science and innovation wing of the museum, where they can learn about everything from the stars to backyard bomb shelters.
July 29, 2009
Thirty-three years ago this week, in one of the first images sent back from Mars, people thought they detected the likeness of a human face rising from the dust of the red planet. The photo was captured by Viking 1, the first spacecraft to successfully travel to and land on Mars.
The image inspired tabloid headlines like “Monkey Face on Mars” and books like Richard Hoagland’s The Monuments of Mars, in which Hoagland claimed, based on the photos, to have seen “an entire city laid out — on Mars! — with the precision of a Master Architect. I had indeed discovered some kind of artificially constructed Martian ‘complex.’”
Once the public saw the “Face on Mars,” as it came to be called, people became interested in the neighboring planet and possible life there. The trouble, says Smithsonian geologist John Grant of the Center for Earth and Planetary Studies, is that people assumed it was a sign of advanced alien life.
“In fact, there was a little bit of a misconception about what kind of life scientists were trying to discover on Mars, which was relatively simple life versus complicated life forms that were carving big faces in rocks,” Grant explains.
When scientists first viewed the image, they were confident it was an eroded rock formation, probably a mesa. High resolution photos taken in 1998 and 2001 have confirmed that the “Face on Mars” is a trick of the eye, seen when light hits the mesa at a certain angle. Different parts of the planet’s surface are more resistant to erosion than others and don’t erode as quickly, leaving some areas higher and others lower. This process forms a relief that then creates the shadow, making it look like a face at certain times.
Grant likes to compare it to the Old Man in the Mountain in New Hampshire (which fell down in 2003). “No one ever thought that the Old Man in the Mountain was something carved by people or aliens or anything else. Yet they could look at it and say: ‘Oh yeah, I see how the sun is shining on that and shadows are cast and it looks like a man’s head,’” he says.
“The same thing can happen on Mars and produce something that, just by sheer coincidence and the way erosion has occurred, creates something that looks like a face,” Grant adds.
The spacecraft Viking 1, that captured the iconic image, was launched on Aug. 20, 1975, followed one month later by Viking 2. While orbiting Mars, a camera onboard Viking I began scanning potential landing sights, beaming the images back to Earth. In the early morning of July 20, 1976, the Viking 1 lander separated from the orbiter and successfully descended to the surface at about 10,000 miles per hour. Viking 2 followed on Sept. 3, 1976.
The two Viking spacecraft collected information about Martian atmosphere, meteorology and soil composition, and captured more than 50,000 images during their time in orbit and on the surface.
July 28, 2009
A rare tufted deer was born at the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center in Virginia on July 16. The deer was the fourth species to give birth in one week, joining the clouded leopards, Przewalski horses and red pandas in welcoming new members to the Zoo family.
Tufted deer, called that for the tuft of hair on their forehead, are native to the forests of southern China. They are usually found within giant panda reserves. The animal is difficult to trace in the wild because of its elusive habits—it travels alone, or with a single mate, in the late evening or at dusk. But wildlife experts say that some 100,000 are killed annually by local hunters. The IUCN lists the species as near threatened; and even captive animals are rare with fewer than 110 living in U.S. zoos.
This is the 11th tufted deer baby to be born at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo since 1994, when the first arrived. Unlike North American white-tailed deer, tufted deer only grow to be about 1.5 feet tall, about the height of a medium-sized dog.
The keepers say that, as in the wild, the mother will raise her fawn alone, although the father usually stays with the pregnant mother until she gives birth. This tufted deer family will not be on public display.
July 27, 2009
Today marks the anniversary of Bugs Bunny’s first starring role in “A Wild Hare.” An early version of the ”wascally wabbit” had appeared in 1938′s ”Porky’s Hare Hunt,” but it wasn’t until this 1940 short film that his character was fully designed and delivered the immortal line “What’s up, Doc?” to his nemesis Elmer Fudd.
Since then this long-eared actor hasn’t looked back, sharing the screen with Michael Jordan and co-starring in the Oscar-winning film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? In 2002, he topped TV Guide’s list of greatest cartoon characters.
Bugs Bunny’s contributions to entertainment and pop culture haven’t been overlooked by the Smithsonian Institution. In the National Museum of American History’s “Thanks for the Memories” exhibition, animation cells of Bugs and other Looney Tunes are displayed right around the corner from the ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in the 1939 film “Wizard of Oz.” All of the cells were donated by Mel Blanc, the actor who gave Bugs his Brooklyn/Bronx voice.
So, if you’re on the mall today, be sure to stop by the American History Museum and pay homage to Bugs.
July 23, 2009
Sororities and fraternities dot college campuses across the U.S. and despite the Animal House stereotypes, many share a rich history and challenge members to commit to a life of service. Alpha Kappa Alpha and its first national president Nellie Quander are no exception.
Quander was instrumental in the incorporation of the first African American sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. Judge Rohulamin Quander, a relative, has written a biography of her titled Nellie Quander, An Alpha Kappa Alpha Pearl: The Story of the Woman Who Saved an International Organization. Rohulamin Quander will lead a discussion and sign copies of his book at 10:30 AM on Saturday, July 25 at the Anacostia Community Museum, as part of ongoing programming for the exhibition Jubilee: African American Celebration.
Your presentation is related to the Jubilee exhibit. What are some of the celebrations of African American sororities and fraternities?
Some of the traditional celebrations of African American Greek letter organizations are naturally Founders Day, in which we come together to celebrate the founding of our organization. We commemorate and look back at the goals and objectives of the sorority and fraternity. We see how we hopefully have been measuring up to meeting that goal, mostly related to providing service in terms of literacy programs, mentoring programs and health-related programs. We also need to take time and have a little party here and there, where we interact with brothers of the fraternity and also invited guests.
We realize that these organizations started in the first place partly out of rejection, when we were not accepted by the larger organizations. Today, we have what we refer to as the Divine 9, five African American fraternities and four African American sororities. All of whom, I might point out, while they are predominately African American, also do have members who are not African American—Caucasian, Asian and Latino. The organizations were open to non-African Americans because of the feeling that we would not discriminate against non-African Americans the way we as a group had been discriminated against.
Nellie Quander was 30 years old when she joined Alpha Kappa Alpha. Why did she join when she was already a successful teacher and studying at Howard?
When she came to Howard University in 1910, the number of women there was so miniscule you could count them if not on two hands, on two hands and two feet. She entered Howard in January 1910 and the sorority was also advertising that same month for the new line of intakers. It was the second year that Alpha Kappa Alpha was taking a group of women into the sorority. So she signed up at the same time and was initiated in the following weeks. This was a lifelong commitment and for the women, who were very much new going to university, this was an opportunity to intellectually associate with one another and not to find themselves in total isolation.
Women came together to talk about things that interest women. Not just marriage, not just children. This decade of the 1910s, it was not unlike the decade of the 1960s, when there’s a lot of activism. The NAACP was founded in 1909, the Urban League in 1910. Women and men are in sororities and fraternities. [They] came together intellectually and they got out, demonstrated and participated. Nellie Quander was always a hands-on person.
Why was incorporation a necessary step for Alpha Kappa Alpha?
Incorporation was necessary because when the sorority was founded at Howard University in January 1908, it consisted of just those who were enrolled at Howard University. Once you left, there was no more opportunity to participate with the sorority. Also, the idea of extending service to all mankind, if you’re going to do that, you need to put yourself in a position where you can set up other chapters with other like-minded people whether they were in Chicago, Baltimore, Oklahoma or elsewhere, where they too can participate in this network. Until the sorority took the leap of creating a national organization, they were very limited. It took the internal breakup in October of 1912 when a group of sorority members left to form Delta Sigma Theta to make those who were still there say ‘we better do it.’ Nellie Quander took the lead. Incorporation created the ability to become a national organization.
What is the legacy of Nellie Quander?
She was always dedicated to a life of rendering service to others. She didn’t have a husband, didn’t have children, but she was always involved in figuring out how she could help somebody else. She did this in Sunday school at her church, she did it at the YWCA where she was involved with every committee, she also operated a community center at the Miner Normal school which was for after-school programming. Having grown up in a very specific society—even though her family didn’t have money—in which they knew who they were and where they came from, she had the legacy of being a niece of a senator and the friend of Frederick Douglass. She knew she was a special person and she wore that on her sleeve.